David Lindley

Joseph Henry Press Washington, D.C.

Joseph Henry Press • 500 Fifth Street, N.W. • Washington, D.C. 20001 The Joseph Henry Press, an imprint of the National Academies Press, was created with the goal of making books on science, technology, and health more widely available to professionals and the public. Joseph Henry was one of the founders of the National Academy of Sciences and a leader in early American science. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this volume are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences or its affiliated institutions. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Lindley, David, 1956Degrees Kelvin : a tale of genius, invention, and tragedy / David Lindley. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references. ISBN 0-309-09073-3 (hbk.) 1. Kelvin, William Thomson, Baron, 1824-1907. 2. Physicists—Great Britain—Biography. I. Title. QC16.K3L56 2004 530′.092—dc22 2003022885 Permission: The Syndics of Cambridge University Library in order to quote from the Kelvin and Stokes collections.

Copyright 2004 by David Lindley. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America.


Acknowledgments Introduction 1 2 3 4 5 6 Cambridge Conundrums Cable Controversies Compass Kelvin

vii 1 11 64 114 164 215 260 309 317 325 353

Epilogue Bibliography Notes Index


helped shape the story into a more purposeful tale than the amorphous mass it might otherwise have been. Susan Rabiner. especially the Radcliffe Science Library. including but not limited to places to stay. Internet connections.ACKNOWLEDGMENTS R esearch for this book was done mostly at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. use of the old blue Toyota. Chris Butcher scanned and tweaked several of the images reproduced here. excuses to go sightvii . My agent. assorted computer peripherals plus technical assistance. Thanks to all. and bridge parties. pizza. Last minute assistance from the Niels Bohr Library of the American Institute of Physics is much appreciated. I am grateful to the staff at both institutions for their help. For all kinds of other moral and practical support during a couple of peripatetic years. Robert Fairley kindly provided copies of Jemima Blackburn’s watercolor of the Thomson brothers and Helmholtz and the striking photograph of Kelvin as an elderly man. I particularly thank Adam Perkins and his staff at the Scientific Manuscripts Collections at Cambridge. and at Cambridge University Library. bibliophilic companionship in Hay-on-Wye. rides to and from airports. beer. Jeff Robbins at the Joseph Henry Press encouraged me to untangle some knots in the original manuscript and professed to be not unduly disturbed that I didn’t quite make the deadline.

Christine Mlot. definitive conclusions are hard to come by.viii Acknowledgments seeing. and a variety of opportunities to think about something other than this book. which made me rethink some of my opinions. distracting e-mails and phone calls. Stephen Lindley. Karen Hopkin. I want lastly to thank Michael Nauenberg for his review of the manuscript. especially of thermodynamic history. my thanks go to Liz Pennisi and Matt Butcher. Damaris Christensen. The history of science is a branch of history. but I hope our differences are honorable. Professor Nauenberg and I still don’t entirely agree. after all. Hellen Gelband. Bob Shackleton and Cathy Mattingly. . and Kay Behrensmeyer and Bill Keyser.

was normally sparse. By a quarter past 10 on this day. students had crammed expectantly into Anderson Hall. But when university president Dr. with thinning white hair above a prominent forehead. reporting his arrival from England on the Cunard ship Campania a week and a half earlier. As senior faculty members filed in to take their seats. Leaning on Rhees’s arm was a slight elderly man. however.” He had been helped into a chair on the dockside while customs officials inspected his baggage. suffering from a bout of the facial neuralgia that had afflicted him intermittently for several years now. The place was bursting. alongside a good number of interested townspeople. On rare occasions the pain was bad enough to keep him in bed for a few days. noted that the old man “did not appear to be in robust health. students at the University of Rochester in upstate New York assembled for chapel with untypical eagerness. his face enlivened by sharp blue eyes. The visitor walked carefully. sporadic shouts and cheers erupted from the simmering throng. Rush Rhees at last entered. The New York Times. He was more than usually frail this morning. Attendance. But he managed a few words O 1 . supposedly mandatory. with a noticeable limp. May 1. 1902.INTRODUCTION n the morning of Wednesday. a hush came over the crowd.

as well as technical men such as Alexander Graham Bell.2 Degrees Kelvin with reporters and would have spoken more had he been less tired.C. accepted invitations to meet the celebrated visitor. In Rochester he was the guest of George Eastman. not a theater star or a famous politician. It was a spontaneous. he and Lady Kelvin stayed with Mr. and especially not to let anyone down. manly and vociferous. A few days earlier he had attended a reception in New York for the new president of Columbia University. Throughout his long life he had rarely been ill. and immobility irked him. he swept around the northeastern United States during his three-week visit with remarkable energy and enthusiasm. It filled the college halls. was lined in those days with the magnificent residences of the gilded age. as in so much. but rarely do they become the subject of whooping and foot stomping by crowds of university students. He eagerly inspected the hydroelectric power station at Niagara. D. the Rochester students rose to their feet in silence. In Washington. At 77 years of age. and Mrs. Rhees and his venerable guest moved slowly to their places.. Newspapers referred to him as a noted or eminent or distinguished . where he mingled with the likes of President Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie. As Dr. of which Kelvin was a vice-president and scientific adviser. he was no ivory-tower academic but a public figure and a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic. American politicians and foreign ambassadors. exuberant. generous cheer.” The recipient of this extraordinary acclaim was not a war hero or a beloved author. founder of the Kodak company. but. remarkably. if we are to believe the reporter for the local Democrat and Chronicle. and could have been heard half a mile away. which turned the energy of the cascading cataract into electricity. Every age has its venerated intellectuals. George Westinghouse at their mansion on 16th Street which. to stick to his busy schedule. a cheer which must have warmed the visitor’s heart. overflowed out on the campus. there “broke forth such a cheer as had never before resounded through Anderson Hall. Lord Kelvin was one of a kind. much as he is accustomed to the homage of men. In this. The best antidote for age and pain was to keep working. At grand dinner parties on successive evenings. But then. a scientist and a British scientist to boot. For a reportedly feeble old man. heading directly north from the White House.

and of much else besides. But these were not widely known names at the end of the 19th century. He mentioned the doctrine of the . any more than they are today. one newspaper talked of “Lord Kelvin. He talked of Kelvin’s countless laboratory investigations. “has called to mind his many contributions to the practical applications of science to modern needs.INTRODUCTION 3 scientist. natural phenomena that had only recently begun to yield to scientific understanding and that still retained a good deal of mystery. Kelvin. On a trip to North America five years earlier. Rather.” Only in the last half century had science or natural philosophy emerged from its arcane and isolated realm to become a force in public life. the eminent electrician. on the other hand. may have evoked a sliver of recognition among the nonscientific public. was a genuine celebrity. Of particular concern to Rhees’s audience was Kelvin’s long-standing involvement in the development of systems to generate electric power by tapping the enormous energy going to waste every second as water plunged endlessly over nearby Niagara Falls. an enterprise with which Kelvin had been crucially associated. an appellation Kelvin disliked. He preferred the old-fashioned designation “natural philosopher. sprang from the mind of a man who was not simply an inventor but one whose prime achievements lay in the realm of pure science. Then university president Rhees spoke of their distinguished guest. After the raucous Rochester students had settled themselves.” These achievements. an electrician was one versed in the science of electricity and magnetism. Terminology had an awkward. which underpinned the work of many pioneers of electrical science and technology. but that could hardly account for his renown.” In those days an electrician was not someone who came to your house to install a new outlet or fix a broken wire. the average home didn’t have such marvels. Rhees was careful to note. men such as Faraday and Maxwell and Weber and Helmholtz. Kelvin had indeed been a pioneer of the new science of electromagnetism.” he began.” He mentioned the laying of the first transatlantic submarine telegraph cables some 40 years earlier. the usual chapel service followed. “Lord Kelvin’s visit. The names of his equally meritorious contemporaries. unfamiliar air. “His patient study and passion for exactness have put in his abiding debt all students who follow in the path of physical investigation in which he has been so illustrious a leader.

Often. airplanes nonexistent. as scientist and technologist. Kelvin was buried at Westminster Abbey with all the pomp and ceremony Great Britain could muster. Everybody has heard of Newton. Few these days know of Kelvin. Those who brought technology to life were rare and remarkable men. Technology was just beginning to impinge on the lives of ordinary men and women. *** Not exactly. in other words. academic and entrepreneur. as yet unsullied by doubts. is zero on the Kelvin scale. they were men of incalculable ingenuity but no deep scientific knowledge. Science was the harbinger of a new world of convenience. The lowest temperature attainable. of labor-saving devices. He was laid in a tomb alongside Isaac Newton. His name survives. There used to be an Ameri- . the creation of mechanical devices and technological instruments according to the principles of science was not yet a routinely accepted part of ordinary life. Kelvin existed in both spheres. It was seen almost without reservation as a boon and a blessing.4 Degrees Kelvin conservation of energy. Electricity as a source of domestic power was not yet widespread. when Rhees lauded his visitor. in the absolute temperature scale.” Here was a man. The telephone had been around for two decades or so but was still considered a luxury. that unapproachable icon of pure science. on the other hand. The true scientists. for those with a little physics education.15° Celsius. like the incomparable Thomas Edison. In 1902. It represented progress. which now stood “as the basis of not a few of the advancements made during the last half century in both pure and applied science. Cars were barely known. of vast industries. who had contributed profoundly to the development of fundamental physical principles and who had in addition turned those elementary insights toward practical ends. a few years after his visit to Rochester. –273. When he died in December 1907. Kelvin had been one of those who had brought into being this profound law. The proximity seemed just: surely the names Kelvin and Newton would live on forever in the same exalted rank. generally stayed aloft in their abstract realm and did not deign to come to earth. a philosopher and a practical man rolled into one. Uniquely.

James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism had by then gained universal recognition as a full account of electric and magnetic physics. There is no direct connection. Kelvin said. . which he attended eagerly until the year he died.” Of the second he declared that “they will never be able to use dirigible balloons as a means of conveying passengers from place to place. even though.” Thus stands. Milestones in science stand forever. The first. in histories of science. It is all a delusion and a snare . Celebrity is notoriously fragile. a living fossil. his own innovative ideas had been Maxwell’s first inspiration. In his judgments on technological matters too he displayed the dogged certainty of an opinionated old man. very marvelous indeed. How could a man routinely described in his lifetime as Britain’s and perhaps the world’s greatest scientist have become so cruelly neglected? Even while he was alive.INTRODUCTION 5 can company. however. or even among 18 also-rans. He had reservations about the existence of atoms. the enduring image of Lord . based in Detroit. he would not wholly accept the novelty of radioactivity. to pay scientifically appropriate tribute to a man who had done much to develop the modern understanding of temperature and no doubt also to cash in on a still-famous name. . “is one of the world’s most remarkable inventions . wireless telegraphy and airships. Institute of Physics in 1999. a gulf had developed between Kelvin’s public persona and his reputation among researchers. The company launched the line in 1918. Or not quite universally: Kelvin would not accept it. those who erect them gain permanent recognition. decades earlier. . of course. at scientific meetings. . . but scientific reputations do not normally wax and wane according to the whims of one era or the next. Kelvin’s name did not feature in the top 10 all-time greats of physics. . he believed the earth was no more than a hundred million years old. he had become something of a crank.K. a holdover from an almost forgotten era. Yet in a poll conducted by the U. . The Times reporter who caught a few words with him as he disembarked in New York in 1902 asked him about the prospects of two new scientific wonders. Even in his position as “eminent electrician” he had parted company from the mainstream. not practicable. that made refrigerators under the brand name Kelvinator. In the newspapers he was scientific knowledge and brilliance personified.

chafed against this limitation. a figure Kelvin would have found ludicrous. at the time. out of touch with the new science of the early 20th century. For much of his life he fought a running battle against geologists and biologists over the age of the earth. Tough! Kelvin struck me as the perfect illustration of a physicist inclined to lay down the law to lesser scientific disciplines. Kelvin’s arguments had been solid and his logic impeccable. a critical survey of the development of physics through the 20th century. for those who know the name Kelvin at all. What mostly survives. Kelvin’s reasoning was. Starting from elementary laws of energy conservation and heat loss. is how I too was ready to perceive Kelvin when I first came across him in historical context. In the decades after his death Kelvin’s scientific reputation sank rapidly and has still not risen back to anything like its peak. whether the average physicist today could explain in any detail what it was that Kelvin did to make this commemoration appropriate. who had devised increasingly respectable theories of the formation and erosion of rocks. despite imperfect information and unproven assumptions. Geologists. Even so. An old man. Most likely it was no more than 20 million years old. in any case. and radioactivity. I wonder. in other words. though. The earth is now known to be 4. *** That. white-haired man.6 Degrees Kelvin Kelvin. he was wrong. A crank. Kelvin declared with unwavering conviction that our planet could be no more than a hundred million years old.5 billion years old. An old man who said no to atoms. quick to oppose what he couldn’t understand. I used this episode as a cautionary tale in my book The End of Physics. and biologists. is the image of a crotchety. There was . no to radioactivity. I got a clear picture of a man who with unfailing consistency put his money on all the wrong horses. and with good reason. no to Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory. but he stuck to it with blind stubbornness even as new facts and ideas came to light that knocked holes in many of his arguments. His name was posthumously attached to the scientific temperature scale in 1954. armed with discoveries of fossils and more recently with Darwin’s theory of evolution. When I learned also of his attitude about atoms. electromagnetism. not unreasonable.

I continued to think of him as one of the numerous minor-league scientists who populate old textbooks and later sink into the footnotes. But this only deepened my earlier puzzlement. There was Kelvin’s circulation theorem in fluid mechanics. . or rather her advisers. and the Kelvin-Helmholtz timescale in the physics of stars. agile and original. Why were his apparently fundamental contributions not part of my general knowledge? And how did the quicksilver William Thomson. Not just in Britain but among the great scientists of France and Germany he was regarded as the most promising talent to have appeared in decades. and energy. as I later discovered. and his reputation existed only among his fellow scientists. only a few years out of college. turn into the doddery and skeptical Lord Kelvin? Gradually I began to amass references to Kelvin and his wideranging achievements. a mathematical prodigy who had first published original work at the age of 16 and whose inspirations were showing others how to untangle the great puzzles of the time. but either I had forgotten about William Thomson completely or else I had never learned much about him in the first place. propounding ideas and principles still taught today at the core of any course on basic physics. and here in the middle of it all was William Thomson. William Thomson. had seen fit to raise him to the peerage—the first scientist. of electricity and magnetism—and William Thomson. The middle of the 19th century saw the foundation of what we now call classical physics—the science of heat and light. From my own education in physics I was familiar with a good number of notable names from the 19th century.INTRODUCTION 7 the curious circumstance that Queen Victoria. had already made astonishing progress in the quest to understand the nature of heat. to be so honored—but at that time I didn’t know how celebrated he had been in his day. My views began to change a few years ago as I was researching my account of the life and work of the Austrian physicist and atomic pioneer Ludwig Boltzmann. when he still went by the name he was born with. not yet 30 years of age. or why. Both subjects were then in their infancies. was at the heart of it. I encountered Lord Kelvin at a much earlier stage in his life. But what a reputation! This young man. and in the parallel effort to elucidate the nature of electricity and magnetism. In the late 1840s and early 1850s he was in his 20s. work.

stubborn old age. possibly tragic path: early renown. which is why his name and not Thomson’s became attached to it. and. at the Kelvin angle. for which he developed the theory of undersea signal transmission. “Has not their own prophet declared this policy?” the activist declares. The question remained: How did youthful brilliance turn into resistance and obstructionism? Was the aged Kelvin a disappointed man? Angry? Oblivious? This book is my attempt to disentangle and then recombine the many elements of his life in order to resolve its mysterious. Then there was his connection to the transatlantic submarine cables. I came across Kelvin again in a still more unlikely setting. The new hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls feeds electricity to the booming town and its greedy businessmen. Lord Kelvin. “Their own ‘President of the International Niagara Commission. The leader of the activists claims that the industrialists aim to consume Niagara Falls altogether. someone told me. who later set it as an exam problem for Cambridge students. a Glasgow maker of telegraph equipment. A rag-tag group opposes the power station. There was the firm of Kelvin and White. to sacrifice it completely to capitalism. lay. I learned from a footnote somewhere that an important proof in vector calculus known as Stokes’s theorem first appeared in a letter from William Thomson to his friend George Gabriel Stokes. half a dozen different people. household electricity meters.8 Degrees Kelvin The V-shaped waves created by the bow of a ship speeding through water diverge. Behind the name William Thomson.’ their prophet of darkness—Lord Kelvin!” Prophet of darkness indeed! Here was a contrast to the awestruck praise from Dr. toward the end of the 19th century. Lauren Belfer’s 1999 novel City of Light is a melodrama of murder and romance set in Buffalo in 1901—the year of President McKinley’s assassination there. scientific and laboratory instruments. established brilliance. and his involvement with the British Royal Navy in devising new navigational instruments. Rhees and the wild cheering of his Rochester students! *** But I am running ahead. so it now seemed. fearing that those behind it want to take every drop of water from the falls and dry up one of the country’s natural wonders. and abrupt .

All I can say is. contentious and intricate matter of the standardization of practical units for the measurement of electrical quantities. and placed it before you more methodically. with good intentions. Even so. and a chronological catalog of his activities would make confusing reading. and his lecture waxed on beyond the allotted time. I have had to tease and rearrange. Characteristically. and he drew warm applause and thanks for his efforts. he struck out with enthusiastic digressions on subjects he had intended to dispose of in just a few sentences. and I am much obliged to you for your patience. that I have done my best. his audience detained him with questions. As my apologia I can do no better than borrow Kelvin’s own words. to say the least. I hope. It’s a complicated tale. Inevitably. In January 1883 he delivered a lecture to the Institution of Civil Engineers in London in which he dilated on the seemingly dreary but actually.INTRODUCTION 9 posthumous fall. as we shall see. although we all know where those can lead.” . In conclusion he replied: “I wish I could have made it more clear.


Peter’s College while his son ate with the new and returning students. 11 S . leaving his son to start his new life. With his father James Thomson. Then Professor Thomson returned to Scotland to prepare for his own classes. 30 miles west of Cambridge. he had made the tedious trip from Scotland to eastern England: mail coach from Glasgow to Carlisle. but these had been family adventures. dined at the fellows’ table of St. but William had to perch on top until they got to Bedford. gregarious young man but unused to isolation. His father stayed a couple of nights and. and finally on to Cambridge in another coach. arriving in the late evening. with a maid and often a tutor. in the lively company of his three brothers and his older sisters. all under the strict guidance of their father. in northwestern England.1 CAMBRIDGE eventeen years old. where they spent the night. professor of mathematics at Glasgow University. William was an affable. across the Humber estuary in a little steamboat. For a few days he felt adrift and aimless. another coach across the country to the eastern seaport of Hull. William had roamed a good deal in Scotland and had traveled to continental Europe twice. Professor Thomson managed to get an inside seat. an academic man himself. Elizabeth and Anna. William Thomson arrived in Cambridge at the end of October 1841 to begin his undergraduate studies.

and more besides. buildings. “I have got no time to be dull.” he told Anna with comic exaggeration. “I had no idea there were such fine gardens and grounds about the Colleges. called on the young men to attend a wine party in his rooms.” he told Elizabeth—had traditions all its own.” he wrote to Anna after his father’s departure. but soon he was out walking and talking with his fellow undergraduates.” he wrote to Elizabeth. getting to know the town and St. At Cookson’s party he fell into awkward conversation about “college. and William was instantly busy. He asked Anna to tell him how much tea to put in his cup for breakfast. Peter’s College (as it was usually called then.12 Degrees Kelvin “Since he has left I have had very little to do. “was on the whole not unedifying.” His initial nervousness overcome. William’s outgoing nature soon asserted itself. I have been going out every now and then. William knew all about boating on the clean open waters of Scotland. Wryly he informed Anna that “to make the time pass less heavily. . “as I have got as much to do as I can possibly accomplish. So he idled about. lectures started. he soon discovered. He began to make friends with other new students. all of which. & coming in again. Cookson. “I adventured myself to-day for the second time in a funny (or funey. After a few days like this. were the pleasures of rowing on the Cam. he found the flat. Dr.” he now told Elizabeth. now it is known as Peterhouse). he allowed. “I made my appearance in fear and trembling. or funney). he was not going to be overawed by the chitchat of the dons. since lectures have not begun yet. The grandeur of the place surprised him.” More rewarding than walking. The narrow river in Cambridge—“an exceedingly muddy and sluggish stream. With guidance from his sisters he learned to prepare a small breakfast in his college rooms. The college tutor. and knew how to behave with charm and civility. He had grown up in a house where distinguished academics came and went. & I have not got any advice as to what I should read. empty landscape around Cambridge disheartening.” He went on short walks beyond the city. Accustomed to hiking around the lonely lochs and spectacular mountains of Scotland. From Elizabeth he wanted to know whether he should put coffee in the water before it has boiled or after. Conversation and burgeoning friendships pushed the dreary landscape into the background. Fitzwilliam museum” and other small matters.

a boat for one or two people to row in.” Quickly he mastered the little craft. paper. and. a fellow of Trinity College.Q. Philip Kelland. He knew P. a few days earlier a foolhardy student from Queen’s College had managed to drown himself trying to shoot the modest three-foot fall on the Cam.Q.CAMBRIDGE 13 i. which subsequently appeared in the November Journal. meanwhile. It is certainly rather a venture to go in them as we can hardly stand upright in them for fear of upsetting them. read voraciously.R. Toward the end of November. rowed on the Cam.” Not only that. And so a few days after his father left.Q. The editor of the Journal was David F. tramped around the muddy fields with his new friends. the Cambridge Mathematical Journal had published a short paper correcting errors in a recent book by the Edinburgh professor of mathematics. having graduated a few years earlier. the men connected with the club are generally rather an idle set. son of a local sugar merchant. stayed up late talking earnestly of this and that. Smith was about to return to Cambridge where he too was a Trinity mathematician. Back in Glasgow. and besides. He went to his lectures.R.” James Thomson wrote proudly to William. William Thomson called on Gregory to discuss not only a brief addendum to his first P. Though tempted. like any smart undergraduate away from home for the first time. He dropped in on Thomson after being startled to learn from Gregory that the author of the P. and was surprised you could have written it. “Rowing for the races is too hard work for getting on well with reading.’s identity and was eager to meet the young man. William’s unease dissipated entirely and he threw himself into college life. paper was none other than Thomson’s son. in eights. identified the author of this concise and confident work. in which his college was doing well. Gregory. James Thomson had a visit from Archibald Smith. He “asked your age. a bare month after William’s arrival at . And a secret about him soon came to light that made him the object of unconcealed awe. His already advanced knowledge of mathematics set him apart from most of his fellow students. he shunned traditional Cambridge rowing. in May.Q.e. but also more advanced work that he had developed over the summer and wished to submit to Gregory’s editorial scrutiny.R. studied in his rooms. After a week or two.R. Six months earlier. Only the cryptic initials P.

The trip was doubly memorable for Anna. even at this young age. . for a large family. At a hotel in the Grindelwald in Switzerland they ran into William Bottomley. was trussed up firmly on the operating table while the doctor opened him up. Their father pointed out geological features and notable plants along the way. where Robert.” he wrote blithely to his father. Elizabeth was then 20 years old. the youngest son. “They staid. Gregory and Smith came by his undergraduate rooms to talk about mathematics. Leaving the four boys behind with a maid and tutor. had little opportunity to travel by themselves. and rushed in to comfort him as soon as the ordeal was over.” But success had come so easily to William. sober Glaswegians regarded them as brave and unusual girls and invited them out to dinner to tell of the exotic sights they had seen. but for the improvement of his children he would spend what he must. before moving to Glasgow. 10 years old. The older children combined recreation with education. and he wanted to give them this chance for adventure while he could. On these trips William Thomson halfheartedly kept a diary. Before going on to Paris. that he scarcely wondered at it. This was 19th-century surgery. alarmed by his cries and moans.14 Degrees Kelvin Cambridge. Continental expeditions were unusual for the times and. nearly three quarters of an hour. “It was certainly a great honour for a freshman of St. he took off with his daughters to explore southern Germany and Switzerland on horseback. They studied German with a tutor and went on hikes. expensive and cumbersome. Elizabeth waited at the door. who had been a student of her father’s when he had taught mathematics in Belfast. Anna 19. he told his daughters. Anna stayed up late talking to this “delightful young man. Peter’s to have two fellows calling on him. I suppose. The summer before he had taken his clan to Paris to see the sights and to improve their French. meanwhile.” They married in 1844. James Thomson had taken all six of his children on a holiday to Germany. William and his father. Back home. 1840. James Thomson was a thrifty man and only moderately affluent. *** The previous summer. good for body and mind. the family had stayed almost a month in London. The boy. before anesthetics. underwent surgery to remove a stone. spent the morning touring the British Museum. Young women.

At that time. he spotted the royal carriage again. on his own. we succeeding in catching a glimpse of the top of her bonnet. On May 21 the family went by steamship from Glasgow to Liverpool then to London by train and on to Rotterdam by steamer. James’s Park or exploring nearby Westminster Abbey. hovered over Robert for several days. William again made a few desultory notes. so much so indeed. There his career in physics began. arriving close to midnight on the last day of June. But he had no need to write down his impressions of Germany. and finally by steamboat down the Rhine to Bonn. but he was quickly on the mend. Perhaps a glimpse of the royal headwear really was thrilling to a 15-year-old provincial boy. often fatal. . After waiting for about half an hour. one of the milestones of physical science. Most natural 1But perhaps this is not irony.” A few days later. Once when he and his sister were in Hyde Park they heard that Queen Victoria was in the vicinity “and we accordingly determined to wait and see her. revealing a pleasantly impish humor that largely disappeared from his later notes and correspondence. after all. for good and ill.CAMBRIDGE 15 The danger of infection. The few weeks he spent there remained bright in his memory until he died. Then William put his notebook down and left the remaining pages blank. that I forget its colour. and for a couple of decades after. the nature of heat resisted understanding. William recorded in his notebook a few of his impressions of London. Or perhaps William felt that he ought to be thrilled and duly recorded that he was.”1 On the way to Germany the following summer. throughout his life. and was amply rewarded: “As the Queen’s head was averted I had the inexpressible felicity of seeing her most gracious bonnet. chased after it. William and Elizabeth were up and about early. In the meantime the other children saw the sights. a most overwhelmingly interesting spectacle. there he acquired a perspective (it would be too grand to say philosophy) on mathematical science that he maintained. *** In 1822 the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier published his great book Théorie Analytique de la Chaleur (Analytical Theory of Heat). feeding the ducks in St.

” But if scientists didn’t understand what heat was. But if no principles or axioms were known. “The mathematics is very difficult. there is no gradient at any point. This was an innovation.16 Degrees Kelvin philosophers held that it must be some kind of tenuous subtle fluid. Heat flowed. William Thomson heard the Glasgow astronomy professor John Pringle Nichol praise Fourier during his lectures. Mathematicians had always worked in an axiomatic way—start with principles and deduce consequences—and when they came to apply themselves to natural phenomena. philosophically as well as scientifically.” Nichol cautioned. then how to begin? Direct observation. so that it was hotter in some places. It resembled a fluid more than it resembled anything else. the movement of heat changes the temperature pattern within the body. but William got the book from the library anyway and set himself to understand it. In 1903. Fourier’s particular genius was to construct a quantitative mathematical theory of the behavior of heat on a foundation of knowledge derived from observation and experiment. showed that heat flowed more readily through some substances than others. on the other hand. How easily he read and digested Fourier’s theory depends on which reminiscence we are to believe. When the temperature is the same everywhere. about what it did. so that ignorance of the nature of heat was no impediment. and could be stored up and transferred with some degree of control from one place to another. In turn. the 79-year-old Lord Kelvin recalled that “in the first half of the month of May 1840 I had. they knew a good deal. after all. speaking at the unveiling of a stained glass window memorial to Nichol. cooler in others. and heat will no longer move about. Ultimately heat will flow within a closed body so as to iron out all differences. so heat moves in the direction along which temperature falls most sharply. Imagining a three-dimensional body with heat distributed within it. He asked Nichol whether he should read the Théorie Analytique. I will not . and flowed faster where the difference in temperature was greater. Building on these elementary facts Fourier saw how to create a general theory of heat flow. This putative heat-fluid acquired the name “caloric. Fourier came up with the crucial concept of the temperature gradient. Just as water flows downhill along the steepest incline. When he was just 15. practically speaking. they aimed to apply the same style of reasoning. was retained by some materials longer than by others.

” In other words. . . I had turned over all the pages of it. but are subject to simple and constant laws. Fourier undoubtedly had a formative influence on William Thomson’s scientific thinking. spheres. Any scientific proposal must be grounded in a combination of established principles and empirical facts. . once grasped. he later recalled. . He was. which may be discovered by observation. and must yield mathematically rigorous results. . . He saw that the great virtue of the Frenchman’s work was that. Fourier’s magnum opus was some 400 pages long. The bulk of the treatise consists of numerous calculations of heat flow in all sorts of geometries (blocks. . P. the book did not in fact provide a theory or explanation of heat. I have deduced these laws from prolonged study and attentive comparison of the facts known up to this time. but his new theory occupies only a small part of the book. . the bedrock of his view of physics. rods. the Cambridge-educated professor of mathematics at Edinburgh. and in a fortnight I had mastered it—gone right through it. .CAMBRIDGE 17 say read through the book. That such an analysis yielded powerful and general results struck Thomson with the force of youthful revelation.” But to his biographer S. The object of our work is to set forth the mathematical laws which [heat] obeys. Not everyone embraced Fourier. in which he claimed to find contradictions and inconsistencies sufficient to invalidate many of Fourier’s findings. Fourier’s words became a mantra to him. . and so on) to show the versatility and universal validity of his methods. a copy of Kelland’s treatise came into William’s hands. . Thompson three years later he offered a more robust account: “On the 1st of May . one observes and measures how it behaves and devises mathematical laws accordingly. and the mathematically acute young man would not have found Fourier’s repetitious calculations forbidding. it is not necessary to understand the true nature of a physical phenomenon. As Fourier proclaimed: “Primary causes are unknown to us. . published in 1837 his own Theory of Heat. Philip Kelland. make evident good sense. the study of them being the object of natural philosophy. He acquired a lifelong detestation of speculation or metaphysics. It is not so implausible after all that William may have “mastered” the volume in a couple of weeks: the elementary ideas. I took Fourier out of the University Library. A couple of days before the Thomsons left Glasgow for their trip to Germany. despite his title. instead.” Either way.

and used in Frankfort [sic] to go down to the cellar surreptitiously every day to read a bit of Fourier. In his book. initially at the same temperature throughout. The trick involves the construction of what are now called Fourier series. So I put Fourier into my box. he could hardly be displeased. then the string divided into thirds. Heat flows out of the rod. “Papa! Fourier is right. with one end abruptly brought into contact with some body at a lower temperature. Fourier used this method to solve many examples of heat flow. He might imagine. but when his father discovered that William was avoiding one lesson in order to delve into something much deeper. The technique has become a standard tool in applied mathematics. for instance.18 Degrees Kelvin “shocked to be told that Fourier was mostly wrong. And any displeasure evaporated when William jumped from his seat one day and declared abruptly. The fundamental musical note derives from the oscillation of the string as a whole—its ends fixed. Any smoothly varying mathematical function defined over some finite length can be likewise represented as the sum of an infinite series of waves with suitably chosen amplitudes. depending on which was more convenient for a particular problem. because he was supposed to be learning German. one going up while the other is going down. and so on. the shape of the violin string represents the sum of a series of simple waves with successively smaller wavelengths. The vibration of a violin string furnishes a classic example. At any moment. and Kelland is wrong!” Kelland stumbled not over Fourier’s theory itself but over a novel method he used to solve the equations of heat flow. a cylindrical rod. Kelland didn’t understand it. To determine the mathematical form of this changing temperature gradient. But William Thomson had the wit to see that Fourier reached the right conclusions despite his occasional sloppiness and . the center point moving up and down with a fixed period.” Surreptitiously. But then there are the higher harmonics: the center point stationary and the two halves moving in opposite directions. Fourier was partly to blame. Fourier found it easier to calculate the components of a suitable sum of waves: a Fourier series. and a gradient develops along it. quarters. He constructed series in a number of slightly different but essentially equivalent ways and would jump from one to another. without always making it clear what he was up to.

saw that this was a substantial result. Where Kelland displayed a pedantic sense of logic. as James Thomson apparently thought it inappropriate that a boy should publish openly in a scholarly journal. let alone a boy who had celebrated his 16th birthday only a few weeks earlier.CAMBRIDGE 19 showed that the Frenchman’s slips and omissions were not fatal. a fellow professor. the Journal aimed to provide a venue in English for the new kind of mathematical physics that the French especially were developing. and early in 1841 James Thomson sent it off to Gregory. and James Thomson.” Kelland added some technical criticisms. The letters had no particular meaning. hoping it could appear in the Cambridge Mathematical Journal. James Thomson. His sharp analysis warranted publication in a mathematical journal. He provided simple proofs of some assumptions that Fourier had made but not verified. Established just four years earlier by the young mathematicians Gregory and Archibald Smith.R. Kelland. As a matter of propriety. Gregory decided Kelland should know the name of his accuser and see the paper before it went into print. He may also have wished to spare Kelland. Because the plain wording of the remarks is not quite what should appear in a periodical lest it should awaken the wrath of parties concerned & the blame fall on the editor. simply saw the problems and stopped dead. al- .Q. a good if not original mathematician. This anonymity was ostensibly for his son’s benefit. He showed himself more acute than Kelland and more rigorous than Fourier. except that they are often used as a triplet of variables in three-dimensional mathematical problems. His son had provided a clear and reasoned decision in a dispute between two eminent men. It was at James Thomson’s insistence that William disguised himself as P. This was bravura from anyone. 1. William quickly convinced his father that indeed Fourier was right and Kelland wrong. Back in Scotland. father and son worked up a paper explaining Kelland’s errors. Thomson demonstrated real insight. So James Thomson wrote directly to Kelland and received at first a cool response: “As to the insertion of the paper in the journal I think Mr G did quite right in corresponding with you first for two reasons. 2. the embarrassment of having his errors pointed out by a child. Because an author never gets any credit for rectifying blunders. by contrast.

2 James Thomson’s tact made what could have been an awkward scientific debut into a rather smooth performance. remembered Kelland as a “frail old clerical gentleman.L. unfortunately. The paper appeared in the Cambridge Mathematical Journal of May 1841. an Edinburgh undergraduate in the early 1870s. After describing briefly the problems Kelland raised in his “excellent Treatise on Heat. agreed to remove some of the phrases that had irked the other man. his sister Elizabeth says that the two became good friends later on. which. 1886). for his “great service to science. “I have examined the other series given by Fourier. There is nothing apologetic or obsequious about the paper. kind like a fairy godfather. even though some of his arguments appear patchy. *** During his three undergraduate years William published a dozen papers in the Cambridge Mathematical Journal. and keeping perfect order in his class by the spell of that very kindness” (R.” William immediately showed that Fourier’s answers are right. Though admittedly written with James Thomson’s help.” Privately. 2Robert . He further mollified him by declaring that William’s “sole object is to establish what is true. even though some of the intermediate steps printed in the Théorie Analytique are wrong. “I am very much pleased with it and think if he works it up well into a paper it will be most interesting. and presents his conclusions. He read eagerly and studLouis Stevenson. “Send my regards to your son. after James Thomson had soothed him.20 Degrees Kelvin ways ready to act the diplomat in pursuit of larger aims. It is an adult work. though.” he wrote. lively as a boy. on this subject. Gregory agreed that “the flippant manner in which Mr Kelland speaks of Fourier would deserve pretty strong terms of reprobation. William states his purpose. and to remove any false impressions with regard to Fourier. it displays an assured.S.” he added. Kelland saw the error of his arguments and the correctness of William’s and quickly agreed to publication. to James Thomson. and they seem all to be correct.” he wrote. straightforward manner. In one case he gave a detailed argument to show that Fourier must have done a calculation correctly. in The New Amphion.” Although Kelland played no further role in William’s life. with the exception of misprints and mistakes in transcription. are very numerous. writes out his calculations.” To his credit.

a highly regarded private tutor. A lifelong habit of incessant activity took root. He devoted hours to his studies but had nervous energy to spare. playing rugby or cricket. There were no entrance exams to the university. Sometimes he spent too many hours on the cornopean and regretted that he hadn’t read as much mathematics as he might have. For exercise he went on the river and strode for miles about the dull Cambridgeshire landscape. discuss religion. James Thomson suffered from a constant fear that Cambridge would seduce his son away from a rigorous intellectual path into a dissolute and purposeless life of wine parties. rowing.CAMBRIDGE 21 ied hard. He took up the cornopean (also cornopiston. boating on the Cam. of course) of the gentry. Anyone who had money and preferably a helpful family connection could enroll as a student. carousing and drinking in the evening—anything but studying in earnest. these extracurricular activities represented time and effort not applied in laying the foundation of a secure career. perhaps touch on Shakespeare or the classics or lighter reading. He was never idle. by contrast. Despite William’s precocious ability and prodigious achievements. resisting along the way any distraction. and in 1843 became a founding member. and they would talk mathematics. To his father. a kind of French horn. James Thomson had doggedly used his intellectual talents to build himself a sound and solid life. walking. the Cambridge student body fell into three roughly equal divisions. Through most of the 19th century. or he theirs. and music were not distractions but essential recreations. at first with his college tutor Cookson and then for two years with William Hopkins. though. dabble in political questions or other news of the day. a family Oxbridge . later president. Sometimes he read for so long he needed to walk or row to refresh his mind. Born to a poor farming family in what is now Northern Ireland. About a third were the sons (no women. with private means. His fellow undergraduates would visit his rooms. For some significant proportion of Cambridge students in those days. overflowed with almost casual brilliance. Rowing. from the French cornet à piston). of the Cambridge University Music Society. But always he got his work done. learning how to comport oneself at afternoon tea parties. and the reading of light novels. William. undergraduate life was devoted mainly to forming friendships and connections.

In Cambridge he saw his son beset all around with temptations and perils that could upend his promising career and destroy his future at a stroke. Constituting the remaining third were the children of what we would now call middle-class professionals: doctors. but. by all means to take in a suitable degree. He bombarded William with cautions and admonitions: You know my views about a strict and proper economy. above all things. but to take equal care always to appear to do so. lawyers. In “your walk of life” also. headmasters. For such people Cambridge was a lifeline from poverty. but also on account of your own health and habits. Healthful and innocent exercise and amusement. take care to be moderate and wise in the formation of your notions and habits. his father let fly with a paragraph that jumped from one lively fear to the next. William was of this group. taking sufficient. rather behind than in advance. you must keep up a gentlemanly appearance and live like others. but not violent exercise. learning that William had been out on the frozen river. clever but from meager backgrounds. not merely on account of expense. however. Even ice skating was on the list of dubious recreations. I am sorry to hear that you have been boating— not on account of the thing itself. but what brought success in the world was the correct attitude. who survived on scholarships or charity and struggled to live while they devoted themselves to studying. keeping. to be grasped securely and never let go. clergymen. Never forget to take every care in your power regarding your health. In December 1841. you must take care not only to do what is right. James Thomson never ceased to worry that his son might through inattention or complacency slip back down the social ladder that he had so determinedly ascended. Another third were poor students. but . which still bestowed on them the right to regale friends and family with stories of their time at Cambridge.22 Degrees Kelvin tradition. I wish you. Brilliance was all very well. as I think there can be no danger. These students generally left the university with an ordinary rather than an honors degree. and no urgent concern to find a career or profession. He was concerned for William’s safety on the ice. always making moral correctness and propriety your aim above all things else. he wrote. but hoped “farther. of course. that it will not lead you into company that will injure or relax your moral feeling. and the like. At the same time. Recollect my maxim never to quarrel with a man (but to waive the subject) about religion or politics.

I have given no wine parties. The money came to William in a letter from his younger brother John.” he agreed—he took to the water as often as he could.” William replied with casual reassurance: “With regard to wine parties. reassuring his father that “I always row by myself in a funny. .” Although he didn’t row with the college team—“an idle and extravagant set. without permission. Seven pounds for a tub that will hold only one person!!!” He called his son “a soft freshman” for being duped. you will see that my cautions are well founded. unless with fellows. observe the strictest caution. and always tell me about any thing you find. He consulted Cookson. as. . he claimed. on the pros and cons of boating. and grudgingly paid up. .” he wrote. for firewood. “built of oak. “You are quite right in anticipating that I would be surprised. He threatened to make William return the boat immediately and get his money back. In more advanced years. At present. and if you do go. and at any to which I have gone there has not been the least approach to excess. or indeed any parties yet. (or as it is called skulling. I have gone to as few as I possibly could. .” William had a fine sense of what he could get away with.) or at least go in a two-oared boat. or employed for a washing tub. I find that Ayrton [another Scottish undergraduate] goes to no wine parties.CAMBRIDGE 23 that you may be brought into loose society. I do not say. But with his remarkable and gifted son. In February 1842 he wrote to his father with the startling news that he had. till that time she will be constantly on the look out in the obituaries for the drowning in the Cam of an extraordinarily clever. a thing that would ruin you forever. .” This extravagance. actually represented fiscal astuteness. the instinct to be firm ran up against a habit of indulgence. spent all of £7 on a secondhand boat. who reported the reaction of his mischievous sister Anna. . . but you should scarcely go to any others. but I suppose I must return some of the invitations next term. with some friend with whom I should otherwise be walking. . since he would no longer need to hire a boat. “You allowed yourself to be cajoled and probably cheated. you should go to none. His father was shocked by this insubordination. the tutor. evidently received a favorable opinion. because of the excesses and other evils to which they lead. and as good as new. “I hope [the boat] is to your liking but it is not at all to Anna’s as she would like exceedingly that it were broken up. .

. Many Scots fled to the northern counties of Ireland. who wrote “so favourably and so kindly regarding you” that he sent another £10 for the boat and other expenses. County Down. He was uniformly kind to me. Born in 1786 on his parents’ farm near the small town of Ballynahinch. and did not relax his discipline when he applied it to his children. to assist his friends.” A month later James Thomson had softened entirely after hearing again from Cookson. he was shrewdly alive to his interest. It was the lurking fear of loose morals and roguish young men that animated his concerns. In Scotland. you require to be most circumspect. and in resisting every advance to what is bad. lengthy. and puritanical. which James VI of Scot- . and would put himself to some trouble. she says that I know quite well that you might take the cramp. . a vigorous and manly activity. and I owe him nothing but gratitude. then against him as he too attacked Scottish political and religious traditions. But he was not in person as dour as all that. daughter of William’s sister Elizabeth.” These were adherents to the King’s Covenant. John Nichol. he was the great-great-grandson of a John Thomson who had fled religious persecution in the lowlands of Scotland around the time of the English Civil War. humorless. and yet the aim of his life was their advancement. recalled Professor Thomson thus: “Good-hearted. Agnes King. Protestants at first sided with Cromwell against the overbearing Charles. at the end of which. says that the Thomson family was of “the fine old stock of Scottish Covenanters. and to be firm in your adherence to what is right and proper. James Thomson’s numerous. . in 1649.24 Degrees Kelvin young Cantabridgian: and. He apologized a little for his “admonitory style” but told William that “at your period of life.” Rowing itself. son of Professor Nichol and playmate to the younger Thomson children. without being selfish. James Thomson could not honestly object to.” His lowly origins colored James Thomson’s personality and anxiety over his children’s future. and repetitious letters to his son make him seem cautious to a degree. and even expense. He was a stern disciplinarian. if I say to her that you could surely swim across the Cam. and placed as you are among many persons of different characters and habits. Oliver Cromwell had sent Charles I to the executioner’s block.

there were the Protesters. and others). the Resolutionists. and though he was firm in his principles he always aimed to resolve difficulties by diplomacy rather than protest. not only on elementary arithmetic but . taking in the standard improving diet of classics and mathematics. Others. He was unusually bright. James in 1822. Some of the Thomsons moved on to America. geography. but even more remarkably diligent. He began writing textbooks. Elizabeth came first. Margaret in 1827. The following year he became professor of mathematics. he witnessed bloodshed at the Battle of Ballynahinch. He obtained his M. James received a little education from his father but went on to teach himself from books and later enrolled at a local Presbyterian school. in 1812 and two years later became a teacher of mathematics.CAMBRIDGE 25 land (later James I of England and father of Charles I) had signed in 1580 in formal renunciation of the Pope and the Catholic Church. In 1798. arithmetic. then Anna in 1820. which is one reason the repercussions linger in Northern Ireland to this day.A. While still taking higher classes at the country school. James’s ancestors. which ran for a single long session from November to May. he served as assistant teacher to the lower forms. but the insurgents were quickly and easily defeated. 1824. stayed where they were even after Scottish affairs had quieted but continued to think of themselves as ancestrally Scottish. and William on June 26. Later he became a master at the school in the summer months and for six years sailed to Glasgow every autumn to attend university there. James Thomson acquired a fierce disgust of religious favoritism and sectarianism. Over the years their religious ferocity abated into mainstream Presbyterianism. when English soldiers put down a brief Irish rebellion inspired by the recent French and American revolutions. in 1818. Three younger children followed: John in 1826. He built a house in Belfast and started a family. and bookkeeping at the Belfast Academical Institution. In 1817 he married Margaret Gardner. whom he had met in Glasgow. the Remonstrancers. His family provided food for the rebels. and Robert in 1829. when James Thomson was a boy. The religious ramifications in Scotland of the Civil War in England verge on the incomprehensible (as well as the Covenanters. He devoted his considerable talents and self-discipline to the furtherance of his own life. daughter of a merchant family.

Elizabeth recalled. James and William. He began by reading to his children from the Bible and the classics. James Thomson’s devotion to his children redoubled after his wife died in May 1830. taught at the institution during the day. the girls as well as the boys. and both proved quick—William quicker than James. and his books became standards in many schools and colleges. is degraded into a dry exercise in memory. black jacket. trigonometry. and French. “peculiarly fitted to call forth and improve the reasoning powers. by which mathematics. the boys took a few classes at the Belfast Institution and took the top two prizes. He resorted to tutors only for music. so tall and strong. Elizabeth scrubbed and washed the wriggling William and dressed him in white trousers. and differential and integral calculus. he particularly encouraged in mathematics. James Thomson senior decried the aridity of teaching by rote memorization. and in the evening tended to his offspring. At the ages of 8 and 6. They sold well enough to substantially increase his income. James more thorough than William. she saw him emerge from their mother’s bedroom and was “frightened to see my beautiful father. As late as 1880 his sons James and William together edited the 72nd edition of his Treatise on Arithmetic in Theory and Practice. The older boys. geometry. and some remained in print for decades. and tie. unseen. He rose at four in the morning to work on his textbooks. leaving James to dress himself similarly. William came first ahead of his older brother. having never regained her health following Robert’s birth. including algebra. dancing. James Thomson strained to keep his grief to himself and present only a sturdy figure to his children. botany. astronomy. In a presentiment of what was to become a common pattern. Once. and more advanced mathematical subjects. As the children grew older. He had a way of bringing mathematics alive through illuminating examples. geography. . he would read to them from newspapers and magazines of current events and encourage them to comment on both style and substance.26 Degrees Kelvin also on geography. In the preface (written for the 23rd edition of 1848).” The liveliness and effectiveness of his teaching brought him renown. He lavished the same care and attention on the education of his children. and other elementary subjects. to arithmetic. During their mother’s decline. and introduced them. then proudly marched them off to the institution to receive their awards.

He recalled nothing of her in later years. his whole breast heaving with convulsive sobs. William and John. picturesque courts. 1832. Margaret. on his knees. the clan moved to Glasgow where James took up the professorial position he held until he died. buzzing with . He and his family got off to a difficult start. when the university had moved to a new site. although she herself. he opened his arms wide. and there we remained in silence and darkness. . and he clasped us all to his heart. The university at that time was near the old center of Glasgow. not quite four years old. and watched over us continually. had never been well and died the following year. and his head dropped on my shoulder. The grimy.—his head resting on the cluster of young heads pressed closely together.” His youngest daughter. low-roofed rooms. From this time on James Thomson was “both father and mother to us. . took on a maternal role and was always a more serious girl than playful Anna.” The moment passed. as the oldest child. and we ran into them. “As the little troop came into the room. Many years later. That very evening the five oldest children were summoned to their father’s study. Then he gathered the two little ones. I was the tallest. That year cholera raged through the city.’ He held us a long time so. To William. As one long-serving professor recalled many years later: There was something in the very disamenities of the old place that created a bond of fellowship among those who lived and worked there. bursting out of the slums to threaten the whole population.CAMBRIDGE 27 standing outside the door pressing his head against the wall. and he said with a choking voice ‘You have no Mamma now. in an area that had been engulfed by cheap tenements for the inrushing factory workers while the more affluent Glaswegians drifted west. till at last the nurse came and asked leave to put us to bed. . dingy. the narrow. but Glasgow was among the worst. those who had known it in the old days could afford to let nostalgia color their recollections. He collected himself and went back to his wife’s bedside. The following year.” Elizabeth said. except for the glow of the dying embers. and kept his arms tight round us all. the death of his mother only briefly darkened the happy progress of his childhood. at the side of the fire. as it periodically did. The mushrooming industrial cities of Great Britain all had their share of disease and squalor and drunkenness and crime. “He was sitting there alone.” Elizabeth recalled years later. not yet six.


Degrees Kelvin student life, the dismal, foggy mornings and the perpetual gas; the sudden passage from the brawling, huckstering High Street into the academic quietude, or the still more academic hubbub of those quaint cloisters, into which the policeman, so busy outside, was never permitted to penetrate . . . the roar and the flare of the Saturday nights, with the cries of carouse or incipient murder which would rise into our quiet rooms . . . these sharp contrasts bound together the College folk and the College students, making them feel at once part of the veritable populace of the city, and also hedged off from it by separate pursuits and interests.

The Thomson family took up residence in one of the 11 faculty houses forming a tight quadrangle known as College Court. It was a “dingy old place,” John Nichol remembered. They hunkered down for weeks until the cholera had burned itself out. Elizabeth recalled with a shudder the dead-cart taking bodies away at all hours. On top of this James Thomson discovered that his regular salary was far less than he had expected. Instead his income came largely from fees collected from the students who attended his classes. Few came at first to hear the new professor, and family legend records that his Glasgow position, far from solidifying Thomson’s entry into the professional classes, cost him money for the first year. But for James and William, the arrival in Glasgow marked the beginning of their intellectual lives. Huddled in College Court, they made the acquaintance of other academic families, notably that of John Pringle Nichol, who introduced William to Fourier a few years later. John Nichol, the professor’s son, remembered Elizabeth and Anna as “both clever, good talkers and sketchers.” One of them (he diplomatically doesn’t say which) was “very pretty.” In sketches done by Elizabeth around this time both girls look charming, though the artist gives herself a slight edge. With the four boys they formed “a pleasant and happy group,” according to Nichol. William and James began to sit in on their father’s classes. If their fellow students were surprised to see an 8-year-old in their ranks, they were astonished when the professor posed a difficult question that left the class silent except for the small fair boy who jumped up from his seat pleading, “Do, papa, let me answer!” He had always been a blessed child, so it seemed to Elizabeth. He was a bonny baby, fair-haired and blueeyed. In Ireland a local artist had borrowed him one day as a model for an angel, suitably adorned in frills and ribbons. As a 2-year-old he was once



discovered sitting on the floor, staring at his reflection in a mirror and cooing to himself, “P’itty b’ue eyes Willie Thomson got!” James Thomson doted on this most adorable of his sons, as Elizabeth records in a curious passage from her memoir: “William was a great pet with him—partly, perhaps, on account of his extreme beauty, partly on account of his wonderful quickness of apprehension, but most of all, I think, on account of his coaxing, fascinating ways, and the caresses he lavished on his ‘darling papa.’ When our father came in he would run to him, and jump about him like a little dog, exclaiming, ‘Oo’s nice good pretty papa, oo’s nice good pretty papa,’ and when his father stooped to greet him, the child would fling his arms about his neck and smother him with kisses, and stroke his cheeks endearingly. He had not words adequate to express his affection, and tried every conceivable way to make it felt. And this was not occasional demonstration; it was his constant habit, and had been from infancy. Sometimes the others thought there was a little affectation in this, especially when he used baby language after he could speak quite well; and we laughed at him, but he never heeded.” This odd behavior, Elizabeth claims, excited no jealousy or resentment among the other siblings. William was a sweet-natured child. His siblings were proud of their beautiful and bright brother and pleased that he brought such obvious happiness to their recently bereaved father. In 1834, when William was 10 and James 12, they enrolled formally as Glasgow University students and frequently won the top prizes in their classes, in classics as well as mathematics. Most often, as in Belfast, William came first, James second. Nonetheless, William did not become spoiled or vain. His tutors and fellow undergraduates at Cambridge recalled him as a charming and sociable young man. “A most engaging boy, brimful of fun and mischief, a high intellectual forehead, with fair, curly hair and a beauty that was almost girlish,” recalled one contemporary years later. Consciously or not, William learned through his childhood how to use his charm and his father’s affection to get his own way. After his unauthorized purchase of the “funny,” he frequently reminded his father how favorable rowing was for his health and therefore also his studies. “I have been reading moderately, and skulling a good deal in this vacation, so that every one tells me I am looking much better than I did some time


Degrees Kelvin

ago. Today, just before Hall, I returned from a skull of fourteen miles . . . and I am not in the least tired, but I shall be in excellent condition for reading in the evening,” he reported, and a few days later added, “I find that I can read with much greater vigour than I could when I had no exercise but walking, in the inexpressibly dull country round Cambridge.” About this time he recorded his weight as 8 stone 10 pounds (122 pounds) in his rowing jersey. These little reminders paved the way for William telling his father, in May 1842, that he had used more of his tuition money to buy out his partner’s half-share in the boat. His fellow undergraduate, he explained, hadn’t rowed very much and when he did had damaged the boat and broken an oar, so that as before William’s new expenditure was in truth an economy. “I am sure you will perfectly approve of that way of spending the money since I have found the skulling, after two or three months trial, to be most beneficial to my health and reading,” he confidently asserted. His father grumbled, then paid up.

William’s reading focused, of course, on the study of mathematics, the exception being an irksome examination colloquially known as the “little-go,” which all honors students had to pass in their second year in order to demonstrate at least a passing acquaintance with Latin and Greek authors as well as works of a general religious or philosophical flavor.3 For this William boned up on a section of the Aenead and a little Xenophon, recording in his diary that he had been practicing on the cornopean a good deal “to relieve my head from the seediness concomitant upon littlego subjects.” Despite some fear that the classics would trip him, he easily negotiated the little-go. Then it was all mathematics. For the second and third years he studied mainly with his private tutor, or coach, William Hopkins. He had two goals. He wanted first to learn as

physicist J. J. Thomson, an undergraduate in the 1870s, told of a Greek grammar written especially for the little-go, “which contained a long list of words which were irregular to the point of impropriety . . . not one half of which my classical friends had ever come across.” The time spent in these studies, he says, “was utterly wasted” (Thomson, 1936, p. 35).




much advanced mathematics as he could, to build on what he had learned from his father and by his own initiative and develop a wide-ranging and systematic command of the subject. James Thomson had his doubts about Cambridge mathematics—there was an excessive reverence for Newton and a consequent resistance to the new ideas coming mainly from France—but even so, it represented the pinnacle of mathematical attainment in Great Britain. There was no doubt in his mind that a Cambridge mathematical education was what his son needed, but still, there was some anxiety about entrusting the youngster’s ripening brilliance to hands other than his own. The second goal was to become “wrangler” for his year. This is the undergraduate who gets the highest marks in the mathematics honors examinations—the tripos, as Cambridge exams are still known, not from any tripartite nature of the subject examined but from the precarious three-legged stool on which examinees in olden days had to sit. Candidates for the mathematical tripos sat (in the 19th century at ordinary chairs and desks) a grueling series of eight lengthy papers undertaken over a period of six days. Nervous and sweating examinees were expected to spill out, in coherent manner, the most arcane and involved elements of the subject they had digested over the previous years. The top man was senior wrangler, the second junior wrangler; positions were reported down to 10th or even 20th wrangler. The London Times published the list. Being wrangler was a moderate sort of national honor as well as a university distinction. Like all examinations but to an extraordinary degree, the competition for wrangler was a test of genuine knowledge, power of recall, concentration, nerves, and handwriting. Over the years it had acquired the qualities of a ritual, like the compulsory figures section of the Olympic ice-skating competition in which contestants must perform prescribed moves and jumps with precision and control. Technical mastery rather than originality or flair was the key. The well-coached wrangler candidate knew his essential mathematics but also knew how to write out stock answers to standard questions as concisely and rapidly as possible, in order to do as many problems as he could in the time available. It did not help, in the heat of the exam, to start thinking of more profound or comprehensive solutions than the one the examiners were looking for.


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Nor was there any reward in perceiving valuable generalizations or wider implications of a narrowly defined answer. Compact, tidy handwriting was an asset. William Thomson wrote in a large though readable scrawl. In the middle decades of the 19th century, because good teaching was rarely a high priority of the colleges, the system of mathematical coaching developed to a fine degree in response to the demands of wrangling. As a married man, Hopkins could not be a college fellow, but in the end he acquired a far greater reputation, not to mention a better income, as a coach than he would have done in a formal appointment. The sporting analogy is apt: A good coach secured high places in the exams for his pupils and thus attracted the better students in subsequent years. Hopkins charged £72 per student per year for twice-weekly sessions, might coach 10 or 12 students in total, often took additional classes during the long summer vacation, and thereby easily earned £800 a year or more—considerably more than the typical college fellows and a solid upper-middle-class income. As with coaching for gentlemen who wished to row, the aim was to develop strength and stamina and the ability to perform reliably and repetitively strange motions that neither body nor mind would take up naturally. Coaches were generally men who had placed well in the wrangler competition in years past and who had a knack not only for training young men in the same art but also for predicting from one year to the next the questions that were likely to come up. Problems that would test the wranglers-to-be could come only from certain advanced branches of mathematics, yet they had to be solvable in the allotted time. An apt question, like a nifty crossword clue, was a praiseworthy construction in itself.4 Peter Guthrie Tait, another Scottish student who became a close friend of William Thomson, was senior wrangler in 1852. As one who had survived with distinction a difficult and painful ordeal, he was later scathing about the Cambridge system. “College Tutors and Lecturers take
modest theory: the popularity of cryptic crossword puzzles in England, especially among graduates of the older universities, testifies to the continuing influence of antiquated Oxbridge educational philosophy. The skillful deployment of arcane knowledge in a wholly artificial manner and in a deliberately inappropriate context—this is the key to solving cryptic crosswords.



but small part in the process of education,” Tait told the students and faculty of Edinburgh University in 1866, where he was a professor. “Private Tutors, ‘Coaches’ there, ‘Grinders’ we should call them, eagerly scanning examination papers of former years, and mysteriously finding out the peculiarities of the Moderators and Examiners under whose hands their pupils are doomed to pass, spend their lives in discovering which pages of a text-book a man ought to read, and which will not be likely to ‘pay’. The value of any portion as an intellectual exercise is never thought of; the all-important question is—Is it likely to be set? I speak with no horror of, or aversion to, such men; I was one of them myself, and thought it perfectly natural, as they all do. But I hope such a system may never be introduced here.” The wrangler system, over the years, acquired a patina, a hushed mystique into which all new aspirants must be inculcated. J. A. Fleming, a Cambridge undergraduate in the late 1870s who became a pioneer of the pretransistor electronics industry, recorded in appropriately flat prose his experience of studying for the mathematical tripos. The student would visit his tutor, Fleming recounted, “at an appointed time, and the ‘coach’ gave him an examination paper of questions and supplied a hint or two as to how the questions were to be solved, and also marked certain chapters or parts in a text-book to be read. . . . Then the student went back to his own room and tackled the paper of questions, and read as requested. The next day we took our results to the coach, who noted successful answers, and gave a further hint as to the solution of unsolved problems. The coaches had great experience in forecasting the kind of question likely to be put in Tripos exams, and it would have been quite impossible to obtain a high place without their aid.” One can easily imagine this exchange taking place in a sepulchral silence, sheets of carefully annotated paper gliding back and forth across a polished table to the accompaniment of restrained gestures and indications, as if it were part of a training program for novices in some secretive and highly regulated religious order. The greatest proportion of senior and junior wranglers, as it happens, went on to careers as ministers in the Church of England. Mathematics afforded few professional opportunities, beyond a few Oxbridge fellowships and a clutch of professorial chairs at the four Scottish universities—that or schoolmastering. In any case


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advanced mathematical training was seen more as a kind of general strengthening of the mind than it was as preparation for a life of work with numbers and equations. The same was true of the classical tripos. Students of the classics learned by heart great stretches of Caesar and Cato and Ovid and Horace, and acquired the ability to ad lib a suitable Latin ode on any occasion. Men trained in this way were regarded as having intellects honed to less demanding tasks, such as running Her Majesty’s government and directing the course of empire. William Hopkins was a superlative mathematical coach. Merely seventh wrangler in 1827, he had by 1849 coached 17 senior wranglers and 44 top three places; his pupil E. J. Routh, senior wrangler in 1854, became a coach with 27 senior wranglers to his credit. Those who gained the top handful of places each year could, if they wished, find a pleasant college fellowship or work as a coach and then fashion a career producing more wranglers. Thus did wrangling perpetuate itself over the generations, and as often as not it was the competent but less imaginative men who went on to become fellows and coaches, while those with some other ability besides that of writing out long mathematical answers at great speed took up other careers. Hopkins was an exception to this dreary practice. He had genuine scientific ambitions. He pioneered the application of quantitative mathematical methods in geology, which had until then been largely a descriptive science, like botany. He analyzed the earth’s orbital motion, its rigidity and interior dynamics, the movement of glaciers, and most notably the distribution of heat within the earth. To his pupils he brought not just the tools for doing well at the tripos but also a deep appreciation of the nature of scientific problems and the use of mathematics in solving them. In the middle of the 19th century, the relevance of mathematics to science in general, as opposed to a few highly specific areas of physics, was by no means commonly accepted. Hopkins saw how rational analysis could be brought to bear on all manner of questions—but in the case of his exceptional pupil William Thomson, this was a superfluous lesson. Even before he began his coaching with Hopkins, William had published a third paper in the Cambridge Mathematical Journal of February 1842. Where his first two papers, correcting Kelland’s misimpressions of Fourier, were works of mathematics, his third was recognizably a piece of physics, and a sophisticated piece at that. Written in Scotland in August

like the gravitational force between two masses. Nonetheless. In it he described an analogy between the heat flow formulation of Fourier and the way an electric field spreads across space between charged objects. had devised an alternative portrayal of electrical interactions. it hinted that electric force “flowed” through space just as heat flowed through matter. with physical quantities suitably redefined. Coulomb’s inverse square law was fine for dealing with the simple case of two discrete electric charges but became intractable if one wanted to investigate more complex geometries—the force between an electrically charged sphere and a flat plate. he proved in his 1842 paper that. William realized. Conversely. employing what he called “lines of force. moreover. or his other tutors or advisers. Fourier’s treatment of temperature distributions became in William’s adaptation an equally general way of dealing with distributions of electric charge. The pattern of temperature within some body. The method (as subsequently developed by Thomson and others) is still taught today. . he could use Fourier’s mathematics of heat flow to portray the geometry of Faraday’s lines of force. Subsequently the self-taught English genius Michael Faraday. Fourier had shown. before he arrived in Cambridge. creating a tension that we now recognize as the electric field. Hopkins. This was more than mathematical cleverness. something like intangible elastic strings.CAMBRIDGE 35 1841. it owed nothing to Cookson. decreased in proportion to the square of the distance between them. largely pictorial way of understanding physical phenomena). A fourth paper for the Cambridge Mathematical Journal was the first that William produced from Cambridge. temperature must become less uniform.” In Faraday’s vivid imagination (he knew no mathematics to speak of and substituted an acute. The Frenchman Charles Coulomb had established in 1785 that the electric force between two charges. moreover. to be a powerful way of analyzing electric forces. Again it displayed sharp physical insight. and William Thomson remained skeptical for some time of Faraday’s powerful but allusive insights. forces between electric charges were conveyed along curved lines. for example. For so young a man to have devised it when both heat and electricity were so poorly understood was a remarkable step. these lines. son of an impoverished London blacksmith. It turned out. repelled each other and so distributed themselves as economically as possible through space. These were vague notions. more irregular. would always become more uniform as time passed.

It all rested on Fourier’s principle of formulating mathematically sound arguments relating to observed phenomena.” *** One of William’s fellow undergraduates. reminiscing years later. While he was cramming relentlessly for the wranglership. The subjects he had broached— the flow of heat. and the mathematical parallels between the two—formed the seeds of work that he developed much more deeply in the first part of his scientific career. G. he applied this reasoning to the present state of heat within the earth (so far as it was known) and reached the conclusion that the earth could not have an unlimited past. 5This . and like his earlier diaries of the visits to Europe. A pattern of temperature in some object cannot in general be calculated backwards in time without limit. This was a straightforward mathematical demonstration. As his friend P. it is for the most part halfhearted and desultory. he kept an intermittent diary of his undergraduate routine and habits. halfway through his second year. This seems uncontroversial today. For a few months in early 1843. a heat distribution existing at the present moment can be the outcome of an initial arrangement that existed only some finite time ago. William himself suffered doubts from time to time. Even the application of mathematical reasoning to “cosmological” questions such as the origin of our planet struck many Victorian minds as close to sacrilegious. William kept up a remarkable rate of publication. Possibly he wrote other diaries. Except during these anxious months of early 1843. reported that the startlingly accomplished young man was being touted as a senior wrangler just days after his arrival at Cambridge. Most notably. but I suspect not. To turn it around. interior rumination was not his thing.36 Degrees Kelvin as one turned the clock backward. Tait remarked many years later. but it was not long before important physical applications came to William’s mind. in the middle of the 19th century it was not. He proved a striking result. and more interestingly of his fears and anxieties.5 A student from Germany named Ludwig Fischer aroused concern: “I must read very hard and try to be at least as well prepared as he notebook is the only truly personal record of William Thomson’s that has survived. the geometry of electric fields. “Fourier made Thomson. because mathematically impossible distributions of heat arise.

” But his confidence swung up and down. & had the prospect of the tour in Germany before me. but nobody had given interpretations except myself. He attended a court hearing in Cambridge.” he wrote a couple of weeks later. though I cannot get over the idea of cutting mathematics. He felt no lack of intellectual firepower but worried that his incomplete education before Cambridge left him at a disadvantage. he “was maliciously glad to find that Fischer had not done all the problems. “I am beginning gradually to be violent in my apprehensions regarding Fischer since we have started Mech[anics]. to get a feel for the thing. Blackburn had got solutions for all. if something else do not succeed. Looking over issues of the Cambridge Mathematical Journal containing his youthful work. A week later.” William noted on February 15. in Glasgow] and the summer we were in Germany. who came from a well-to-do Scottish family. and if he continues so when we come to Dynamic. as the Glasgow mathematician Archibald Smith eventually did. doubting the feasibility of a career in mathematics. returning from a coaching session with Hopkins along with Fischer and another undergraduate. less so by the somnolence of the judge. I had far the most associations connected with the winter in wh I attended the natural phil[osophy class. I have been thinking that my mind was more active then than it has been ever since and have been wishing most intensely that the 11th of May 1840 would return. A diary entry of March 14 finds him melancholy indeed. but just three days after that he reported to his father that “Fischer does not get on quite so well with the statical problems. I shall not be so much afraid. In conversations with friends the idea came up that he might take up the law for a profession.” February and March of 1843 saw William. and from time to time was homesick and (a few months short of his 19th birthday!) nostalgic over past triumphs.” . A month later he jotted down the same dreary thought. for the only time in his life. This was a low time. agonized over his future. Hugh Blackburn. “I have pretty nearly determined to go to the Chancery bar. as he did in Geom[etry] of 3 Dim[ensions].” he confided to his diary on February 19 (employing a now obsolete subjunctive).CAMBRIDGE 37 is. I then commenced reading Fourier. and was impressed by a lawyer’s eloquent speech. he “spent an hour at least in recollections. He worried about Fischer beating him.

so she believes.” Now he was hooked. Aspects of the tale may have struck a nerve with William Thomson. Like Evelina. I have been looking out of the window for a long time. and a best-seller in its day. he was a young provincial full of talent and promise. Where Evelina was trying to make her way in the beau monde of London and Bath. and have just seen enough to make me wish to see more. “Blackburn I find is a great man for reading Shakespere. although not until she has survived various scrapes and perversely misunderstood his intentions. breathless tale of society and manners. Villars worries that Evelina. eventually marries Evelina. A modest taste for Shakespeare was no cause for alarm. I got him to read me over some in German. may have put William in mind of his own father. besides Beaumont & Fletcher. It’s a ripping yarn. and the crowing of cocks.” he recorded on March 24. full of snobbery and disdain and gentlemen behaving badly. who reluctantly lets her be introduced into society by better-connected acquaintances. He picked up Fanny Burney’s 1778 novel Evelina. a young noble. Villars observes: “A youthful mind is seldom totally free from . Ben Jonson. would develop the taste for a life ultimately forbidden to her because of her lack of means and connection. but Fischer was dabbling in materials far more perilous: “I went to see Fischer and found him reading [Goethe’s novel] Wilhelm Meister. has disowned her.” Later that evening William went to bed but couldn’t sleep and got up again. introduced to the brilliance and excitement of society. William succumbed to another temptation: literature. William was momentarily struggling in a Cambridge society quite different from the Glasgow world he grew up in. Evelina is a young woman whose mother died giving birth to her and whose high-society father. and a little later he sampled the dangerous fruit himself: “looked over some of Shakespere’s poems. The moon is shining brightly on the mist wh lies on the meadow (like the like the [sic] silvery clouds we saw from Ben Lomond. a racy. the barking of dogs. “I have been looking out of the window. Inevitably. and have got back my journal to endeavour to fix my impressions.38 Degrees Kelvin In this febrile mood. She is raised by a loving but limited country parson.” He even set aside his extracurricular study of the French mathematician Poisson for Richard III and Henry IV. &c. and listening to the distant rushing of waters. the Reverend Villars. More particularly. Evelina’s guardian. Lord Orville.

” Evelina is caught between Villars’s cautionary admonitions and the excitement of new adventures with people of wealth and ton. If he felt at all uneasy in Cambridge. to curb that. . I read Evelina till 2h 20m. Her true aristocratic parentage is revealed and her fortune restored. but as his father constantly reminded him. If he were to prosper it would have to be entirely his own doing. unsure of his future. and listening [sic] the birds. she had to contend with “gentlemen” who.” Evelina’s tale. Burney’s novel is a genuine page-turner. she marries the noble Lord Orville. and William’s eagerness to stay up late and find out how it all ends is easy to understand. . thinking her a naïve country wench. the revelation that Evelina is a blue blood after all causes all the previously disdainful society women to embrace her as one of their own. then returning late picked up the book again: “On Sunday night. were eager to deceive and use her badly. out of his depth with people whose style and manners were strange to him. I got to bed with a very strange feeling. One evening after reading for a while. he could expect no miraculous lifeline.” The next day he had the usual round of walks and conversations with friends. she reconciles with her father. whose singing filled the air. and for a few months that burden troubled him. the salacious Sir Clement Willoughby is sent packing. “I spent a long time looking at the sheep. idle young men who stood ready to draw unworldly young people into loose living and depravity. ends in unalloyed happiness. as the euphemism had it. William’s predicament was hardly so dire. William Thomson could expect no such absurd denouement. The blithe passage of his youth and the easy renown he had achieved in Glasgow paled a little before the contemplation of his new environment and the future it promised. But this tale of the innocent abroad evidently awoke unfamiliar feelings. when I finished it (the 1st novel I have read for 2 or 3 years).CAMBRIDGE 39 ambition. But as Burney sharply relates. since to diminish expectation. is to increase enjoyment” and later “I would fain guide myself by a prudence which should save me the pangs of repentance. after I was left alone. who had been deceived into raising another young girl as his daughter. is the first step to contentment. Cambridge abounded in wealthy. . The day after he had closed the book on Evelina’s thrilling adven- . after a series of implausible coincidences and discoveries.

will not feel his situation miserable?” After a series of mishaps and adventures and coincidences even more implausible than Evelina’s. On Sunday he re- . and in making the most valuable of all acquisitions— character. From London at the end of May. James Thomson wrote that he would be coming down to London over the summer because Robert again needed surgery to remove stones. or any mode of life. Wilhelm gives up his dreams of the stage and begins to see a more responsible and worthwhile future. Searching for his vocation is a solemn task for young Wilhelm: “What mortal in the world. The prospect of a visit from his father overjoyed William: “I hope most intensely that you will come here. I find he has been reading Goethe to a great extent. is a young person seeking a path in the world. “To thine own self be true” is the message.” William broke off his diary while he was in Scotland for the summer. When William returned to Cambridge. sometimes a paragraph. on the portentous date of Friday the 13th of October. The diary came to the Cambridge physicist Joseph Larmor in this condition after its author’s death. yet I feel an interest in them so far as you are concerned. James Thomson wrote warmly of his visit: “With my trip to Cambridge I have been much gratified. I am glad to say that what I saw and heard of you was very satisfactory. offered William encouragement at rowing: “Tell me about your races. then “went to Fischer. came back to his rooms. like Evelina. so too his anxieties returned. Your success in your studies. sometimes whole pages. He tried his diary again. He falls in with an itinerant set of actors but soon finds them shallow and vain and wonders where his future lies.40 Degrees Kelvin tures he went out to scull for a while.” Wilhelm Meister. Interpretation is difficult not only because of its sparseness but also because pieces of it have been carefully torn out—sometimes a line or two. clumsily but earnestly. instead of waiting in London to meet me.” He was pleased with the circle of friends his son had formed and. answered a letter from his father. has afforded me great pleasure. You see that though I consider it necessary you should give them up for the future. if without inward calling he take up a trade. with the implicit assumption that one’s own true self will turn out to have merit. but even more sporadically than before. Early in May. an art.” What passed between father and son is unrecorded.

but since that we have been rather interrupted.CAMBRIDGE 41 corded a few casual remarks.” The date of this entry is unclear. may take places. then something more personal. I mean to miss going down to the river one day at least in the week. The winner will get a cup of about fifteen guineas value as well as the honour of holding a pair of silver skulls in his hands for a year. . but after the skulling is over. To the end of his life he remained immensely proud of his athletic triumph. though he resumed his studies with a vengeance. In late 1843. I endeavoured to keep some of them a secret from myself. . . I shall never . has one good effect at least—that of convincing us all that you are a most excellent logician. Fifty years later. The idleness however did not depend upon external circumstances as I have been in my room almost every night at or before 7. I don’t however aspire to such an honour.” His father and sisters. At the end of November William wrote cheerily to his sister Anna that although he had to catch up on a lot of work for Hopkins “I am practising now everyday for a great skulling race wh will take place on Tuesday.” The rest of the page is torn off. but “I was very little interested about the race. and William wrote back in his usual reassuring way. part of a page that was incompletely torn away: my thoughts have been a tissue of . . Anna replied this his letter “containing all your reasons for having joined the boat races . . and there is more about boats. . but partly to my having Wilhelm Meister. . Blackburn and I went on very regularly with Faust till James [his brother. learning of his renewed interest in rowing. . he also kept up with rowing. and to have some practice on the cornopean.” . of which only this remains. When I was writing my journal. became fearful again. them here. The next day there is a little more: “During last week I have been rather unsettled and not applied myself to reading nearly as much as I could have wished. when he was supposed to be replying to letters congratulating him on being raised to the peerage. . who visited Cambridge briefly] came. I have very seldom time now to take out my cornopean. and I shall be very well satisfied if I come in second or third. When it resumes he mentions reading mathematics with Blackburn. he fell to reminiscing and declared that getting the cup was “better than winning in an examination.” Despite his protestations he came first in his sculling race and won the Colquhoun Cup.

By the end of 1843. when he read a novel. with mathematical calculations. and by the end of that tortured year he had put them all away. drafts of papers and letters. occasional philosophical reflections— but nothing personal. it seems as if I looked into an endless void. After staying up late reading Shakespeare one evening he remarked: “This is a beautiful moonlight night. a sense that William didn’t have the stuff of dark yearning in his soul. rather comically. mused that he had stayed with the actors “longer than was good: on looking back upon the period I passed in their society. as I suppose I shan’t forget it in a hurry. He described his latest work with Hopkins.42 Degrees Kelvin He ended his diary for good with an undated half page.” He went on. Thereafter William worked every waking hour at science and showed only a passing and conventional interest in music or art. it stayed securely within his own mind.” There is an echo here from Wilhelm Meister. after he closed his 1843 diary. Mozart. much later in life. I shall at least remember everything worth remembering about it. during the rest of his life. then announced—to himself? to his father’s shade?—that from now on he would keep only a private mathematical journal. nothing of it has remained with me. William Thomson’s mathematical prowess showed itself early. reflective. I might lose a great deal of time looking out of the window. He liked Beethoven. and Weber and was especially fond of the Waldstein. He developed no taste for deep literature. who after giving up his pretensions for the stage. perhaps written after his victory on the Cam. introspective man. On the rare occasions. as he turned 19. for a few months. a different sensibility briefly awoke. A sharp mind may make its course along many channels. and my rooms are quite romantic. bound in green. No one would ever remark that he was a thoughtful.” Did William feel the same away about the time he had spent reading plays and poetry and novels? If. A diary entry from April 12 betrays. but at Cambridge. If I were only sentimental enough to enjoy it. one of Beethoven’s perkier piano . These were childish things. it would usually be a seafaring tale. however. to fill some 150 notebooks. jottings and ideas on science. these intrusive and unsettling feelings had been put to rest. he suffered any further lack of confidence. He concluded: “I need not stop to commemorate anything about boating last term on this.

unless great care is taken to protect the cliff below it with a wall. William Hopkins organized an extra session of mathematical coaching at Cromer. making plans to travel for a while after the summer session with his friend Blackburn. Whether studying or enjoying seaside amusements or both. James Thomson complained about the expense—“Your lodgings are surely unnecessarily fine. not so much because of the music but on account of the silliness of the plots. wh is rather remarkable for its dullness. on the East Anglian coast overlooking the North Sea. 1844. His style is very much improved. The students saw Hopkins every other morning. becoming closer acquainted with Hopkins. bringing a rebuke from his youngest brother. For what you pay. “This is a very pleasant place.” William was a seasoned student now. . light-heartedly. even when William had to write again a couple of weeks later asking for more money. he knew he could rely on getting £5 or £10 to sustain him. They scrutinized old exam papers. Hopkins wrote to reassure James Thomson that William was not idling. He lodged with Fischer and Blackburn in an old house near the cliff-top. William failed to write enough letters to his siblings. He was learning his independence. for England. studying with his undergraduate friends. For all his father’s scolding. and though still perhaps somewhat too redundant for examination in which the time allowed is strictly limited. In the afternoons they read or went bathing in the sea. John is the only one in this house you deign to write to except Papa & that when you want money. I think. even if he had to plead. William saw him alone the intervening mornings. Too modern! He didn’t particularly care for Wagner. they called it. He did not neglect his mathematics. for playing Grieg on the piano while he was in the next room. . which “cannot survive another winter.CAMBRIDGE 43 sonatas. apologize. and ask twice. and especially for Norfolk. “I am happy to say that he has given me entire satisfaction. we could have good lodgings on the Clyde for no inconsiderable family”—but paid up anyway.” William reported to his father. Robert: “I think you might write a little oftener. it is very excellent as exhibiting the capacious- . *** The following summer.” Jeopardy College. He told one of his nieces off. .

I hope we shall be able to send him forth with such a character as few are able to carry with them from the University. . William’s tutor.” Hopkins had written to James Thomson from Cromer. but William urged calm. but I am keeping myself as cool as possible. as all the three year’s [sic] course of Cambridge reading is for the one object of getting a good place. There may have been giddiness in Glasgow. . his late mother’s sister who was housekeeper for James Thomson’s family: “I do not feel at all confident about the result. William should be an exception among senior wranglers. Cookson. so that in that respect anyone’s whole labour may be lost very easily. . and I hope you . and I think I shall not be very much excited about it when the time comes. He says that his health & spirits are good though he is perhaps a little more pale than usual. He wrote to Aunt Agnes Gall. “To have him come out as a common place senior wrangler. Honors exams took place early in the new year. . Expectation grew.” The candidate himself was not so sure. I consider his place as quite certain at the tip-top. . I am sure that many others will be quite as well prepared and I am determined to be satisfied whatever may be the result. so great by now was his reputation.” By the middle of December.44 Degrees Kelvin ness of his knowledge as well as its accuracy. was writing in the same vein: “Your son is going on extremely well. . He had now completed three years and was in his tenth Cambridge term.” To his father a few days before the ordeal began he wrote: “The prospect is of course rather terrible. We fully expect him to be first and indeed it would be a great disappointment to all his friends and a great surprise to the University if he were not—I do not know of any candidate whom he has any reason to fear. as I think my time will still not have been quite thrown away. William girded himself for the final run at the wrangler competition. would be “a grave disappointment. . I hope however that if I do not get as high as people expect. and if any of you lose any money on me I shall consider it your own fault for giving odds. that it will not be much disappointment. One thing at least I am sure of is that if I am lower than people expect me I shall not distress myself about it. and candidates had one last chance to study and cram before the grueling test came upon them. . .” Back in Cambridge after a short break in Glasgow.

with William’s reputation rising not merely as a likely wrangler but as an increasingly prominent contributor to the Cambridge Mathematical Journal. William Thomson the elder. another possibility came to James Thomson’s mind: his own son. James 6Along with James Thomson. and David Thomson. but he had exchanged his Trinity fellowship for a more lucrative career as a London lawyer. The question of his successor discreetly arose. He had been a professor since 1799 and was 70 years old when William started at Cambridge. A couple of years later. . . with James Thomson taking a close interest: He wanted a lucid teacher. the Glasgow professor of natural philosophy. professor of chemistry. . . the result of a plot cooked up by his father with William’s not wholly enthusiastic assent. As time went by and Meikleham clung to life. a young Cambridge graduate. In 1839. a devotee of the modern French style in mathematical science. the astronomy professor. Gregory was a possibility. and Allen Thomson. William’s attitude toward his father’s scheming is hard to judge. He found ways to throw out the suggestion to some of his closer Glasgow associates (including the professor of medicine. that idea was absurd. Though not an original scientist. You need not be in any fear about my health as I never have been better than I am now. was old and ailing. first Nichol. however. his health had begun to fail. But as long as he breathed. but he died unexpectedly in 1844. all unrelated. and his lectures were delivered by substitutes. who regrettably for our story was also named William Thomson6 ). and from time to time he quizzed William about some of the Cambridge fellows he had encountered. Meikleham remained professor. William Meikleham. and then David Thomson (no relation). like James Thomson. when William started at Cambridge.CAMBRIDGE 45 will not be disappointed if I do not succeed well. Archibald Smith might serve. a scientific man in the new fashion. a modernist. James saw ever more clearly before him the prospect of his son as his professorial colleague. In 1841. there were also the brothers Thomas Thomson. Meikleham had been a good teacher and.” *** On top of the pressure of the wrangler competition. another battle lurked in the back of William’s mind. professor of anatomy.

If the Glasgow chair went to another young man. on the other hand. I ought to mention to him my views regarding you. he could imagine spending a few years here and there before settling into a permanent position. Something would turn up. . Next April his father reported a conversation with Dr. worried less about the future. William made only passing and noncommittal responses to these overtures. concerning Meikleham’s successor: “I felt . . but he received the proposition as favourably as could be expected. who knew a little bench science. when William still had another 18 months at Cambridge ahead of him. he explained. &c. knew how rarely a secure post came open. . and he said that a mere mathematician would not be able to keep up the class. . . He conceived of spending some time in Paris. though he may yet get over it. I wish he were spared for two or three years longer. particularly in chemistry . William Thomson.. it could be closed out to his son for the rest of his life. So he kept the fire gently alive and wrote to William of the ups and downs of Meikleham’s health. too superior. He was naturally quite struck with the idea of your youth. a Cambridge fellowship was his. If he did well as wrangler. he is considered to be in a most precarious state. was that Cambridge men were thought too abstract. He asked about your experimental acquirements. The great concern at Glasgow.” He asked William for his opinion of Gregory or even Hopkins. Like the young researcher today. however. Toward the end of 1843. too mathematical.46 Degrees Kelvin Thomson. and could teach to a less exalted student body than attended Cambridge. In such things. . raised in a comfortable household and aware of his own talents. as he always had thus far. Thomson’s opinion that although there was no doubt of William’s being “an accomplished analyst in mathematical and physi- . and that. he would find a way. . had plotted out his life with a view to security and income. They wanted a practical man. In the whole of Great Britain no more than a handful of comparable positions existed.” James Thomson advised his son to find a way of doing some laboratory chemistry and relayed Dr. from his earliest moments. to make the acquaintance of the French scientists whose work and style he so admired. we have no controll [sic]. James Thomson delivered worrying news: “I am sorry to say that Dr Meikleham has a second attack of his distemper. William. the medical man. His father.

galloped on regardless. without his hearing of it. Meikleham has had another attack—a very bad one. who was then apprenticed to an engineering firm in Millwall. he answered that if Dr. yet it would operate much against you . even at Cambridge. In August James Thomson reported that “Dr. . and the other electors who usually act with me. is to make character. More than ever he reminded his son of the necessity of mature and circumspect behavior: “What you have to do. and is pretty well again.” he reminded his son yet again of the perilous associations of rowing: “Avoid boating parties in any degree of a disorderly character. is more nearly omniscient that any one I have known. Career planning was not uppermost in his mind. general and scientific. should you not be able to give evidence of your acquaintance with the manipulations. to a certain extent. therefore.” Warning of one of the senior Glasgow faculty members “who. Jockeying for the Glasgow chair occupied his father’s attentions far more than his own. Meikleham would live a little longer. of experimental philosophy. he reapplied himself to his studies. “He said that I should not go to the bar. or any thing of a similar nature. so as to justify the Lord Rector.” These events unfolded during the same spring that William fell under the influence of Evelina and Wilhelm Meister. as to private affairs. and when I said that I might not be able to get anything else. staying with his older brother James. as scarcely any thing of the kind could take place. After his father’s visit to Cambridge.” . In all probability. He has weathered it.CAMBRIDGE 47 cal science. in supporting you—a matter of difficulty on account of your youth. .” That spring William spent a week or so in London. and write to me soon about it. and I think now has no idea of giving [the law] up.” William told his father. Smith “seems to be getting on very well. Turn the whole matter carefully in your mind.” William replied that he could not possibly do chemistry experiments in his college rooms and promised vaguely that he would look for some alternative. who despite taking up the law advised William to stick with science. I might be appointed his successor. But his father. He also visited Archibald Smith. the bit between his teeth. the Dean. he will not survive another. though he says that he thinks of all lives that of a professor must be most enviable.

with an ironic smile. His tutors also wrote to keep James Thomson abreast of the drama. Meikleham continued to loom silently over his life. William studied at Cromer over the summer and returned to Cambridge for the final assault on the mathematical tripos. . disquieting news emerged from St. falling in his room and bashing his head on the fireplace.48 Degrees Kelvin Just a couple of weeks earlier William had lamented to his father that “three years of Cambridge drilling is quite enough for anybody. William responded to this news with less than commendable concern: “For the project we have it is certainly much to be wished that he should live till after the commencement of next session. “A Cambridge education did not always give the power of easy expression or of commanding the attention of an audience. James Thomson reported. suggesting he try writing a popular lecture on some scientific subject to prove that there was more to him than rarefied mathematics. In April Meikleham suffered yet another setback. one of the larger colleges and a traditional leader at wrangling. however. .” Eager to apply himself to real science rather than formal study. Stephen Parkinson. and as the examinations unfolded. the Johnians felt confident enough to place bets on their man. Meikleham held on. who displayed an extraordinary capacity for absorbing old exam answers and blurting them out again at high speed. Dr.” the older man had remarked to James Thomson. I shall be much surprised indeed if his chair be not vacant before the beginning of next session. They had a student. . William finally began to see the attractions of a professorial appointment beside his father and for the first time began to write as if it were his ambition and not just his father’s dream. On January 1.” Against the odds. but professor of natural philosophy still. Meikleham was “greatly changed. clearly incapable of teaching. John’s.” By the middle of May. Parkinson crammed until he was gray. reduced almost to a vegetable state. William dashed off a brief note to his father to say that he had cruised through the first two papers with time to spare but afterwards thought of things he had forgotten to put in. He is silent—vacant—and seems to notice little of what is going on around him. William Thomson kept up with advice to his younger namesake. Hopkins reported . As William readied himself for the exams.

” Cookson sent on one of the exam papers with the confident assertion that “I think that he cannot fail to do almost every question in this paper. always an exciting event on the Cambridge calendar. Ellis. . however. . .” But on January 5. an examiner] was one of the first that had a suspicion of this. My confidence that he will be senior wrangler has always been very strong. . one of those men who . William wrote with mixed news: “I have been getting on very well with the examination. . . . . now appeared as a candidate for the highest honors. and I can only say that it remains unshaken. he reported that “the Johnians are talking confidently of their hero.CAMBRIDGE 49 that William “is going through his examination with vigour and cheerfulness. But the general wish was for the Peterhouse man. a rest day in the middle of the examination. But now their best man [Parkinson] suddenly came up with a rush like a dark horse.” A week later. . . who. became unusually intense that year and was the subject of much college gossip. . 1845. I have not been making myself anxious on the subject. one of the Small College men [i. and was very popular in the University. and certainly quite as well as I expected. . . A firsthand account comes from Charles Arthur Bristed. And on examining the work he could scarcely believe that the man could have covered so much paper with ink in the time (to say nothing of the accuracy and performance) even though he had seen it written out under his own eyes. By-and-by it was reported that the Johnian had done an inordinate amount of problems. However. besides the respect due to his celebrated scientific attainments (he was known to the French Mathematicians by his writings while he was an Undergraduate). L. and then his fellow-collegians began to bet odds on him for Senior Wrangler. Yesterday I was told I was the only man who did not look seedy with the examination.” The competition. done himself justice. had many friends among both reading and boating men. . . and in good health.’ while the Johnians were believed to be short of good men. in the majority of his papers. and having been spoken of before the Examination only as likely to be among the first six. . and as far as I can judge has. . when the trial was over but the outcome still unknown. are said to be ‘born for Senior Wrangler. an American student who wrote a memoir of his five years among the natives: This present year.e. William Thomson] was a real Mathematical genius. from noticing on the second day that he wrote with the regularity and velocity of a machine. . [R. and seemed to clear everything before him. I hear the Johnian has been getting on exceedingly well and so I must not be too confident.

Parkinson senior. He would always see fascinating implications beyond the immediate scope of the question. who. and had exercised himself in problems till they became a species of bookwork to him. William’s prior hesitance now allowed him a perverse kind of victory over his father. and the subject of conversation for some time.” He wrote again the following day: “I hope by this time you have recovered from the shock of what I am afraid you must have considered very unpleasant intelligence. but not enough to make up the difference in quantity. . “You see I was right in cautioning you not to be too sanguine about my place. . and it is fair that they should have their reward. . . and you and . relying on his combined learning and talent. When students and faculty gathered at the Senate House on January 17 to see the results posted on the notice board.50 Degrees Kelvin Parkinson’s style of automatic writing was not for Thomson. I hope you will not think I have misspent my time here. and does not hesitate to tell others of his friends. . . . he could see by my papers that I am better than Parkinson. he could not prevent his mind from running away with him. had never practiced particularly with a view to speed. solved eight or nine problems leisurely on each paper. It was said that the successful candidate had practiced writing out against time for six months together. Or not: How he could tell until he tried? He saw more than the typical examinee and was duly penalized. Bristed’s tale resumes: The unexpected award of the Senior Wranglership was the great surprise of the year. Ellis tells me. . and perhaps had too much respect for his work to be in any very great hurry about it. that even without previous opinion. . it was William Thomson’s friends who were downcast. . or a way of solving the problem that might turn out a little cleverer than the approved way. but that I fell short in quantity. Despite coaching. some of them probably better ones than the other man’s. The Johnians give themselves up to one object. . He was junior wrangler.” His father’s guarded reply would only partly have assuaged him: “The place you have got at the examinations is an excellent one. The Peterhouse man. I feel quite satisfied that I have spent as much time on reading and preparation as I could consistently with higher views in science. The only thing I feel in the least degree about it is that it may make it more difficult to succeed in getting the professorship in Glasgow. merely to gain pace. .

but coupling with your place all the distinctions that you can claim. In point of name the next higher place would have been desirable. but Papa says he thinks you have the character of Senior Wrangler notwithstanding. he is decidedly first. . He does no such thing. we can and will make out a good case for you.” From his sister Elizabeth he got warmer reassurance: “I must confess that the unlooked for result of the examination has somewhat disappointed me. Parkinson remained in Cambridge for the rest of his life. . . achieving little except the induction of further generations of diligent men into the realms of wranglerdom. . told me he thought it highly probable that while your son would be hereafter building up for himself a European reputation. . One of the examiners .” This assessment was acute: while Thomson went on to build a reputation greater even than Hopkins imagined. Your son bears his disappointment extremely well. . his opponent might be scarcely known beyond the bounds of the University. . While others are simply answering a question. . . He made sure the letter came to the attention of senior Glasgow faculty and joyfully told William: “Hopkins’s letter has done you great . . he will often be writing a dissertation upon it.CAMBRIDGE 51 all of us ought to be well satisfied with it. From Hopkins he soon received a lengthy and unreserved testament to his son’s abilities: “I confess that your son’s not being senior wrangler is to me a very great disappointment.” It was James Thomson’s perennial weakness not to be wholehearted in any judgment until he had obtained authoritative support. James Thomson seized on Hopkins’s letter. . . he is very proud of his son and not in the slightest degree less pleased with him since the small humiliation he has met with. and he trusts you will maintain it. . . . I was very sorry in reading your letter which arrived Sunday when I came to the part where you say you are afraid Papa will think you have misspent your time at Cambridge. I can assure you however that the circumstance has not affected in the slightest degree the high opinion in which I hold both his talent and acquirements. better I think in fact than his friends. The fact of your son being second is perfectly explicable without lessening the conviction that in the high philosophic character both of insight and knowledge. not only to dissolve any personal disappointment but to fire up again his project of bringing William to Glasgow. . .

said James.” Professor Buchanan read the letter in the Thomsons’ dining room and. An unfortunate incident. Stokes had prepared. “exclaimed ‘that is the kind of man we should have!’ I do not see any meaning to put on this except what at once occurred to myself and what will readily occur to you. said nothing except presumably. . . felt unable to face the afternoon and ran away through the garden after eating the lunch Mrs. Stokes commented ruefully. The Smith’s prize rewarded analytical thought more than trained rapidity of response. “Gentlemen. the Smith’s prize examination was overseen (“invigilated.” The imagination easily supplies Stokes’s even breathing. Some of the papers for the Smith’s prize examination were of a more difficult nature than those [for the tripos] and required a more profound & philosophical view of the subjects. Stokes and the children took their meals in the kitchen for the few days the exam lasted. The exam took place at Stokes’s house in Cambridge. a clock ticking somewhere in the quiet house. In 1845.” William had one final ordeal before concluding his student career. The Smith’s prize examination came after the honors tripos and was reckoned to be a deeper test of scientific understanding than the mad race to be wrangler. hushed childish voices and padded feet beyond the firmly closed dining room door. Shortly after Thomson’s time. It is to this that your son’s success may be attributed. some hours later.” to use the preferred Cambridge term) by his close friend Professor George Gabriel Stokes. as the two men had actually been doing rather well. having survived the morning session. William handily beat Parkinson for the Smith’s prize. Cookson conveyed the good news to James Thomson: “I have seen your son. scratching their pens at the papers while Stokes. Stokes’s daughter recorded years later an occasion when two young men. Mrs.52 Degrees Kelvin good here. The man that wrote it has a heart and a head. It too had its own mystique and pressures. a taciturn man at the best of times. put down your pens.” Overjoyed he may have been. and tiptoed about while the young students huddled at the dining table. “Turn the paper over!” and then. in the dining room. . but William wasted no time in self- . Thereafter he made sure the garden gate was locked before he started the exam. who is overjoyed. Each year students tried to answer a number of long questions on mathematical physics rather than pure mathematical methods.

In optics. and for the time being neither he nor his father could do anything to bring the Glasgow appointment closer. but still alive. The next day he went to London with his friend Hugh Blackburn.CAMBRIDGE 53 congratulation. where many of the greatest exponents of mathematical and experimental science lived and worked. Biot and Augustin Fresnel and Dominique-François Arago investigated the polarization and diffraction of light . Meikleham was hardly speaking. 1845. and Poisson’s Traité de Mécanique (1833). This style not only made the book hard slogging. Taken together. and from there the two continued to Paris. these monumental works created the modern form of differential and integral calculus and their application to mechanics and the motion of bodies. André-Marie Ampère measured interactions between magnets and electric currents and proposed a sophisticated mathematical theory that held sway for a decade or two. when it came to compiling the tremendous Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica of 1687 he reverted to a presentation that Euclid would have recognized. Far from being a system of mechanics. Cauchy’s Cours d’Analyse (1821). William had had his fill of reading and studying and cramming. the great classics of French mathematical science from the late 18th and early 19th centuries include Lagrange’s Théorie des Fonctions Analytiques (1797). *** As well as Fourier’s mildly controversial work on heat. No matter what inscrutable processes of thought Isaac Newton had employed to devise these ideas in the first place. The French mathematicians enlarged and systematized Newtonian mechanics into the sophisticated body of analytical methods that students learn today. he wrote hurriedly to his father with the result of the Smith’s prize. published in 1822. French scientists had also raised the art of experimental investigation to new importance. On January 24. Charles Coulomb and Jean-Baptiste Biot had established laws for forces acting between electric charges and simple magnets. Now it was time for his real education in science. Newton’s work strikes the modern student as a collection of geometrical exercises and trigonometric problems. barely breathing. Laplace’s five-volume Traité de Mécanique Celeste (1799-1825). it concealed much of the mathematical structure of the underlying theory.

In 1825. but because Newton failed to publish his work except under extreme duress from Edmund Halley. But Paris was the birthplace and center for a view that came to influence the rising generation in Britain and eventually penetrated Cambridge too. consisting ultimately of inanimate objects responding to elementary forces. he offered this scathing judgment: “Since the days of Newton. The French achievements of this era became. the foundation of a “mechanical” description of nature. in which forces acting on particles are at the bottom of every physical process. Of course. In 1816 Biot published a textbook. falling behind 7Newton and Leibnitz.7 they generally clung. however.54 Degrees Kelvin and attempted to tie their findings into mathematical systems from the pens of Poisson and others. without being actuated by the spirit by which he was directed in his researches. to the methods pointed out by their great leader. Fond and proud of that eminent man almost to devotion. even in the minutest particulars. the men of science in Britain were wasting their time and talents. and went on: “While these brilliant achievements were crowning the efforts of the mathematicians on the continent. in the late 17th century. there were mathematicians and scientists outside France too: Euler and Gauss in Germany. and remain. and in physical astronomy. Young and Herschel and Babbage in England. Brewster and Nichol in Scotland. and prejudiced against his rivals on the continent. and partly by the scientific war between the adherents of him and of Leibnitz. and.” Here he noted particularly the work of Lagrange and Laplace. by their neighbours on the continent [especially in] the higher and more difficult parts of pure mathematics. independently devised differential and integral calculus. What the French called la physique aimed to combine experimental investigation and mathematical sophistication into a seamless whole. an intense and bitter dispute broke out as to who . One man who grasped quickly the superiority of these gallic innovations was James Thomson. and some in following servilely and implicitly the manner in which Newton presented his investigations. Traité de Physique Expérimentale et Mathématique setting out what we would now call (to use a much abused word) a reductionist view of natural phenomena. as well as Euler. partly by feelings of national jealousy. the British mathematicians have been far surpassed in several branches of science. writing in the Belfast Magazine and Literary Journal. some in restoring the ancient geometry of Greece.

in its higher and more difficult parts. to the advancement of science. Liouville had difficulty with Faraday’s schematic but suggestive portrayal of the electric tension between objects as an influence carried along curved lines spreading throughout space. of Uranus). rigorous. So insistent were the English on Newton’s priority that they took well over a century to accept that Leibniz’s formulation was in many respects easier to use and more flexible in application.CAMBRIDGE 55 on the march of discovery. The French wanted to portray mechanics. the French hankered after a grand overarching system in which all phenomena ultimately referred back to theories of a single. magnetism. editor of the Journal de Mathématique.” a mechanical calculator) began to clear away the old dogmatic Newtonian lore in favor of the more flexible.” William once called him in a letter to his father. The British were content to come up with satisfactory accounts of each of these subjects on their own terms. resistant to further continental scientific innovations (the “despotic Whewell. who set him a problem. In an intellectual divide that remains today. while the pragmatic Anglo-Saxons preferred to analyze empirical matters piecemeal. and heat all as parts of a universal underlying theory of matter and forces. logically consistent formulation. William Herschel (discoverer. William quickly became acquainted with the surviving French savants of the great generation. Or rather. at least at the level of stereotype. A group of reformers led by William Whewell (who brought the words “science” and “scientist” into common parlance). and Charles Babbage (designer of the famous “difference engine. including Biot and Cauchy. and thought it contradicted Coulomb’s inverse-square force acting along a straight line between two charges. in 1781.” But as James Thomson went on to say. they scarcely contributed in the slightest degree. and general mathematics of the French school. though it embodied the same mathematics. By the time William Thomson studied at Cambridge. Like his French colleagues. electricity. during the lapse of a century. because of his resistance to change in the mathematical tripos). was really first. systematic. Whewell was ironically beginning to seem like part of the old guard. change was afoot. . at Cambridge. In Paris. light. this was half a reform: Cambridge slowly embraced French mathematics but failed to succumb fully to the charms of la physique. He met Joseph Liouville.

vague and poorly formulated as it seemed to Liouville and the French. however one looked at it. and for static arrangements of charges nothing more need be said. but Faraday’s picture nevertheless predicted the same forces as Coulomb’s law did. ultimately had more physics in it. that they are simple verifications) and as he takes a great interest in the subject he asked me to write a paper on it. According to Faraday. electrical forces acting in a complex arrangement of multiple charges were best imagined as the summation of independent forces acting between all the pairs. According to Coulomb. elastic lines of force. the lines of force would be perfectly symmetrical around the line joining the charges. In the case of three or more bodies. It was a kind of . For the moment William had shown with simple clarity that Faraday and Coulomb did not disagree. the charges created a state of electric tension pervading the whole of space around them.” In truth. Faraday’s depiction. His lines of forces were an attempt to capture this vision.56 Degrees Kelvin This notion—action at a distance. so there would be no sideways forces. and for a simple case such as two charges separated by some distance. To do this he combined hard mathematics with an appreciation of the physical phenomenon concerned. French] theory. William showed that the pictures came to the same thing. and the force acting on any one charge arose from the electric tension where that charge resided. I told Liouville what I had always thought on the subject of those objections (i. But that was not yet apparent. Full development of Faraday’s insights lay in the future.e.e. Faraday found action at a distance philosophically objectionable and believed that there must be a medium pervading space by which electric forces transmit themselves from one place to another. no contradiction existed. William easily showed. As William reported to his father. and supposed to be objections fatal to the mathematical [i. “He asked me to write a short paper for the Institute explaining the phenomena of ordinary electricity observed by Faraday. Faraday did not dispute the magnitude of the force predicted by Coulomb’s law. as it was usually called—was a piece of Newtonian thinking taken unchanged into la physique. But a significant conceptual difference existed between the two pictures. the geometry obviously became more intricate. For the time being Liouville could see only one theory versus another: action at a distance along straight lines versus curving.

but next to nothing was known at the time of the scientific principles behind steam power. pistons to slide. Efficiency in a steam engine meant economy of operation (more power from the same quantity of coal). for all their love for the rigor and elegance of higher mathematics. The French scientists. Equally important for William’s career was his stint of work in the Paris laboratory of Victor Regnault. Working long days with Regnault. William’s time in Regnault’s lab introduced him not only to practical science. he discovered heat as a source of motive power. In France. also insisted on the importance of empirical knowledge. And he showed a sympathy for la physique while retaining a certain outsider’s perspective. At the behest of the French government. causing gases to expand. In Britain. politicians saw an opportunity to spend national revenue on a project of national importance. Decades later. and crankshafts to revolve. inventors and amateur scientists continued to develop the new technology in laissez-faire style. Regnault had embarked on a long project to measure the thermal properties of steam—its rate of expansion with temperature. In his reading of Fourier he had come to know heat as an element of fundamental physics. birthplace of the practical steam engine. and the source of that admiration for the beauty of Science which has enchanted and guided me throughout my career.CAMBRIDGE 57 problem solving at which he excelled. he told the French Academy on receipt of an honor that France “is without doubt the Alma Mater of my scientific youth. but also to the implications of the theory of heat in technological matters. the quantity of heat needed to raise its temperature by some amount. and so on. His father’s .” *** William’s letters to his father from Paris expressed unabashed excitement at being inducted into the fellowship of true scientists. as Lord Kelvin. a 35-year-old experimental scientist. William’s four and a half months in Paris in 1845 turned him from an applied mathematician into a man of science. steam power became an ever more important foundation for national prosperity. Regnault’s work aimed to establish a foundation of practical knowledge by which to improve steam engine design. at which he proved adept and ingenious. As the new industrial economy grew.

58 Degrees Kelvin responses were equally enthusiastic but for a less exalted reason. Meikleham ailed but lived still. for his time in Paris. William wrote of the wonderful things he was learning and the ideas he discussed with Regnault. He left France at the end of April with no clear plan beyond going back to Cambridge and picking up some coaching to make a living while he pursued all the new ideas he had absorbed in Paris.8 and during the extra hours—often fagged and comparatively listless—I was reading Greek and 8The master of the small village school in Ballynahinch. At the end of June.” And later: “Dr W. is much pleased to hear that you have got fairly into Regnault’s Cabinet [de physique—his lab]. and hopes you will be able to get a good testimonial from him .T. he wrote to his father that “very much contrary to my expectations” he had been elected to a fellowship at St. . . . “Dr W Thomson [the medical man] and Dr Nichol are anxious that you should become acquainted as much as you can with the great men of Paris. relaying the oracular advice he regularly obtained from the older Dr. His protestation seems disingenuous in the extreme: as an undergraduate he was already publishing alongside the great scientists of the day. “You and I are just about fit to mend his pens. in his father’s eyes. one of the examiners had reportedly declared to another. and despite his tiny failure in being only junior wrangler. saying he had had insufficient contact.” James Thomson. no matter how slight the occasion. as testimonials from them may serve you much. Cauchy. Liouville. and it will be pleasant to make their acquaintance irrespective of this. Peter’s. and showing that you are not merely an expert x plus y man. urged his son to get promises of a testimonial from any great Parisian he happened to meet. and others regarding your general knowledge of Physique. He hoped those two testimonials would be adequate reward. He congratulated William on getting “forward so far at so early an age! At your age I was teaching eight hours a day at Dr Edgars. and the rest. where James Thomson got his first education. and the Glasgow chair remained open. tinged with wistfulness. however. William Thomson. but he begged off asking anyone else.” This news brought joy to his father. At length he admitted he could probably get letters from Liouville and Regnault.

” The fellowship paid £200 a year. or very nearly as much money as is mentioned for the situation in Glasgow. get as much. if it exist. . and if not. I can with ease make more than enough money to support myself. in pecuniary respects. clung silently on to life. The only event which could make me require more than I get at present would be marriage. He had heard. catching up with his family whom he had not seen for a year. neither better nor worse. with as little work. . He turned down the opportunity because “I am afraid I should have to give up any thing in the way of original research. that you may be able to get decidedly good testimonials on that point.CAMBRIDGE 59 Latin to prepare me for entering college. which he said he enjoyed more than the coaching. at Cambridge. But Meikleham. and if that were ever to happen when I am here. and no doubt a good deal of plotting and preparation went on between them. He had “as many pupils as I would wish” and also gave lectures in college every morning at eight o’clock. At present. and that of course of a higher kind. I should be independent of private pupils. You must take care to cure the evil. which I did not do till nearly two years after. There were also. by private pupils. . The following February James Thomson informed his son that a teacher of mathematics at the Glasgow High School was ill and would probably soon die. . I think with what I receive for lecturing. William returned to Cambridge. after a disturbing rumor came to his ears at Glasgow. Such a report may seriously injure you. he wrote in early May. & slowly. “important matters in consideration at present” to be advised of by his father. James Thomson didn’t push the matter further and in fact asked his son’s advice on who else might be suitable. to teach so simply. Do attend . with rooms in college—a comfortable living. that William was “said not to bring down your instructions to the capacity of ordinary students. Instead. of course. I think I could. he resumed his campaign for the big prize. William’s reply makes clear that he was beginning to establish his own life and would not go along with his father’s every scheme to get him back to Glasgow. clearly. and when I commence receiving money for my fellowship. and wondered if William might make a move for the position. . .” During the summer William coached undergraduates (as he had been coached only six months earlier) and came back to Glasgow in September.

however. if there is such an idea. decided that some great plot or betrayal was under way. learning this. News of the ancient professor’s demise “took me quite by surprise. and he harped incessantly on the question of his son’s ability to teach at the appropriate level.” The origin of this tattle-tale never became clear. All too cognizant of his father’s concern and tenacity. the battle was now engaged in full. perfectly unfounded. Although Meikleham’s death was no surprise. Meikleham died at last. In any case. James Thomson. except in coming abruptly after so long a postponement. I have never heard a syllable to that effect.” Once these fears had blossomed. William suspected it came from a man at Trinity but in any case wrote strenuously to say it wasn’t at all true. he got his former examiner.60 Degrees Kelvin to this above all things. He reported that Dr. William at first seemed uncertain how to react. +’s and –’s. the possibility of calming his father seemed so hopeless. that it is the common opinion in this university that as a private tutor he advances too rapidly or ‘talks over men’s heads’ is I verily believe. William Thomson was now worrying that young William suffered from “timidity and want of effective locution” and wondered if he could work up some sort of nonmathematical lecture of a general nature to assuage fears that “your ideas and expressions are bound up in the icy chains of x’s and y’s. He wanted proof (what it might be was unclear) of William’s teaching abilities. William visited Smith in London and found only that he hadn’t made his mind up. Smith had at first said he would write a letter on William’s behalf but then wrote a couple of days later to say he was thinking about applying himself. as of late I have been composing myself to the idea of being fixed here for two or three .” William hardly bothered make any reply to these further charges. He derived further anxiety from another rumor: It appeared that Archibald Smith had some thoughts of entering the competition for the Glasgow post. He wrote with long lists of the names of eminent people who might supply testimonials. A Cambridge fellowship was no bad thing. Smith wrote considerate if indecisive letters to both father and son in which little is clear except that he wasn’t sure what he planned to do. Ellis. early in May 1846. now colleague. and James Thomson upped again the barrage of letters and advice and instructions to his son. James Thomson could not let them go. to write to James Thomson in the same vein: “The idea.

Cookson [and other examiners] will I am sure have more influence without many others than if they were overwhelmed in a flood of testimonials from people who do not understand what is wanted for a professor of Natural Philosophy. . Do all you can.” he wrote. Rutherford. in large. A few.” He urged him to try for Herschel and Faraday. . He allowed himself some reservations about his father’s all-out campaign. . . Maconochie: “Could you ‘get at them’? Maconochie is a vain man and would be flattered by a letter from a great or learned man. Could you have nothing from Chasles [another of the French physiciens] or Gauss? . I may add that the remark of one of your friends here on reading your note which has just arrived.” (A letter from his brother James a couple of weeks later spelled out ‘Maconochie’ at the top. “I am afraid you are resting too quietly on your oars about testimonials. safely away from the fray in Belfast where she was living with her new husband. Anna.” William could never act with sufficient vigor to convince his father he was in earnest. . By mid-June James Thomson was writing. . as he thought the whole process absurd and possibly corrupt. from those who should know my qualifications such as Hopkins. .” William’s siblings mostly stayed out of this frantic exchange. to relay the latest instructions. but though he offered good wishes and encouragement Faraday explained he never wrote testimonials for anyone. William Bottomley. provided one suggestion: She told her brother to “get a beard fast so as to make you more imposing. and who is perhaps at a principal crisis in his career. although his brother James wrote once or twice when their father was ill. among other notable English scientists. double your efforts to procure testimonials. as William was in the unfortunate habit of putting two n’s in the middle of the man’s name). but went on to say he would start arranging for testimonials. . More from his father: “. James Thomson mentioned the Lord Rector of Glasgow University.” James Thomson took up again the question of quantity versus quality in testimonials: “Cookson &c are right in their views about the fewness of testimonials. heavy block letters. William had met Faraday once or twice by now. . were all electors as philosophical and judicious as . . and the Dean. . .CAMBRIDGE 61 years. is that it does not appear to be the note of a person who is trying to obtain a valuable appointment for life. however: “I think it will not be a good plan to attempt to get too many [testimonials]. .

I wish you could get something from Herschel and Airy. but the bishop happened to be there and took care of business himself. Hopkins was careful to add a sentence about William’s easy manner and amiable nature as a teacher. however. .” And he added the news that old Mr. had just returned from Malta.” which rather embarrassed William. Perhaps you could through some friends. William told him he had applied for the Glasgow post but would stay at Cambridge if it didn’t come through. Smith.” The result of this months-long campaign was a printed and bound volume of 29 testimonials. concluded with: “He is already blessed with a reputation which veterans in science might envy. . If William had been wavering about giving up the comforts of his Cambridge existence. intending “you may be sure. God grant that he may live and do honour to his country. adverting to William’s great brilliance. [The Glasgow electors] are small men. .62 Degrees Kelvin they are themselves. William reported to his father. [to] use. without much scrupulousness. his achievements so far and those undoubtedly yet to come. the college tutor. Peter’s fellowship. and appointments needed an imprimatur from the local see. along with a separately printed letter from Liouville. James Thomson was never able to convince himself he had done enough to compensate for his son’s lackadaisical attitude. Most of the notices were warm but routine.” This soap opera played out over the summer. which arrived late. a fortuitous intervention by the Bishop of Ely may have nudged him. to receive formal admission to his St. but his friends look for still greater lustre. Archibald’s father. some 15 miles northwest of Cambridge. Colleges were still at least nominally religious institutions. . William traveled to Ely expecting to get some sort of document signed in absentia. Get therefore what testimonials you can from fellows and other respectable people. Cookson. which led James Thomson to decide his testimonial was the best of the bunch. every means in his power to forward his son’s views. He said he “hoped I do not intend to ‘fritter away my time with taking pupils here’ and spoke a good deal to the effect that it would be very desirable if men who have gone through the Cambridge course could be induced to continue studying and endeavouring to make discoveries in science. The bishop responded. At the end of June he had to go to the old cathedral city of Ely. with a mild reproach.

and he seemed quite full of enjoyment. Archibald Smith never applied for the Glasgow chair. William Thomson is destined to attain a high rank among that stellar group [pléiade] of savants that England is justly proud to claim as her own. the Reverend David King. transcending any chauvinism. “a countenance more expressive of delight was never witnessed. happy smile stole over his features. and brilliant success will crown your efforts.” It comes as no surprise to find that this private letter was included in the printed materials ordered up by James Thomson to bolster his son’s case.” William took it all in stride. were warm indeed: “I believe M. . The emotion was so marked and strong that I only fear it may have done him injury. A few weeks later. Success had come again. He was 22 years old. all foes. . put to flight.” He added a personal note: “Continue. 1846. Monsieur. to work as you have already done for a number of years. real and imaginary.CAMBRIDGE 63 Liouville’s remarks. believe me. This tortured tale ends in utter anticlimax. He is perfectly composed.” . William’s persevering father finally allowed himself the pleasure of unfettered joy. According to Elizabeth’s husband. the faculty met and unanimously selected William Thomson to be the new professor of natural philosophy.” The next day he was outwardly calmer but “every now and then a quiet. Your future is bright. On September 11. when he had returned to Glasgow. . Elizabeth reported that “William does not look in the slightest degree elated. The relentless campaign at last over. You would hardly think that it was he who had succeeded so brilliantly.

locomotives to become practical. later. ambling between lush fields full of grazing cows. placid rivers meandered across the rolling landscape. In the bucolic south. But it took almost a century of inventions and improvements for rotary engines and.2 CONUNDRUMS eography made northern England the engine room of the industrial revolution. and simple steam-powered pumps with a rocking action were used in a few mines not long afterward. torrents rushed in narrow channels down the steep slopes of the Pennine hills. but steam engines needed water in bulk G 64 . where sheep nibbled the thin grass. Farther north. The first steam engines appeared around 1700. Tiny agricultural settlements quickly became home to thousands of mill workers—men. This was the birth of the urban industrial working class. the mill towns blossomed. First came the mill towns. Only then did the vast factories of the 19th-century industrial revolution begin to appear. and children working six days a week for wages that barely kept them alive. In valleys where a few powerful streams came together. steam power had begun its long ascendancy. women. Fast-flowing water from mountain streams was no longer a requirement. with clattering looms driven by fast-running water. By the end of the 18th century.

yielding mechanical effort as it did so. from British possessions around the world. it appeared. to be an inexhaustible source. Water falls. following Newton. no water is lost. fell from a high temperature to a low temperature. Indeed.CONUNDRUMS 65 and coal in large quantities. Heat from a furnace turns water into steam. especially cotton and sugar. Heat flowed. turns a wheel. Birmingham. Engineers of the 18th century were well aware. and many more sprawling. Nor is it immediately obvious that anything is lost from the water. the steam (cooled because of its expansion) is vented into the air to allow the piston to slide back. with the piston at full stretch. When scientists first began to ponder the working of steam engines. The working of a water mill explains itself with little difficulty. through a steam engine. then goes on its way. it was impossible to say what using up heat might mean. if only from the obvious visual appearance of the thing. It was not obvious that any heat was “used up” in the process. Industry moved down from the hills and into the flatlands. And they knew too. *** During his 1845 stay in Paris. Only its quality—its temperature—underwent any evident change. Where would it go? What would it become? Far more reasonable to suppose that the quantity of heat stayed the same. that this mechanical work had its origin in the fast-moving stream. investigating with Regnault the properties of steam. the nature of heat being so enigmatic. in some ill-defined sense. that a water wheel generated mechanical work. Then. Ideally. Cities sprang up beside large rivers. Manchester. The transition from fast-running water to steam as the source of motive power had a striking scientific parallel. from casual inspection. producing mechanical effort. the analogy with water wheels proved irresistible. smoke-belching factory cities settled on old farmlands. But it seemed. From the hot furnace to the spent steam. If you go a little way downstream from a mill. bringing in raw materials. William Thomson came across an intriguing paper writ- . the water may flow just as fast as it did upstream. where coal and raw materials could be shipped in and finished goods shipped out. Steam in the cylinder pushes on a piston. Leeds. a quantity of heat. Ports such as Liverpool and Glasgow grew too.

and with his father only intermittently present. After a brief military career. More intriguing still. Carnot’s acute insight was to think in terms of a repeating cycle. in his Scots-accented French. He went into exile in Prussia and died in 1823. Lazare was Sadi’s father. Clapeyron gave a quantitative analysis relating the amount of work produced by a steam engine to the quantity of heat passing through it. Then in 1824 he produced one of the most profound and original scientific works of his or any era. “Caino? ” the merchants would respond. His son Sadi. in 1824. contemporary with Fourier’s great book. apparently unknown to the whole of Paris. when Napoleon returned from Elba only to be defeated at Waterloo and sent into more distant seclusion on St. growing up in the shadow of political reverses.” When he managed to convey the name correctly he was shown works on military engineering by Lazare Carnot and on social matters by Hippolyte Carnot. he hung about Paris in the occasional company of engineers and technical men but made little acquaintance with the world of science. was utterly new to Thomson—and. He served with Robespierre on the Committee of Public Safety in the revolutionary 1790s and after a period of exile had come back as a minister under Napoleon in the early 1800s and again during the “hundred days” of 1815. after Carnot. usually known by just the first half of the title).66 Degrees Kelvin ten in 1834 by Emile Clapeyron. as he quickly discovered. Clapeyron explained that his analysis was not original but rather was his attempt to put into tight mathematical form a prosy discussion he had found in a pamphlet written 10 years earlier. In pondering what went on inside a steam engine. in which he showed impressive agility. Of Sadi Carnot he found not a trace. Thomson went to bookstores and to the used-book stalls along the banks of the Seine asking. haphazardly educated. became (according to his brother) a sullen and mistrustful man. Helena. Hippolyte his younger brother. Then finally Lazare’s ingenuity ran out. by Sadi Carnot. The library at the Collège de France did not have it. “Je ne connais pas cet auteur. born in 1796. Lazare Carnot was a man of some technical knowledge. For the piston to begin . Carnot’s work. who had applied his talents to military matters and then to politics. and titled Réflexions sur la puissance motrice du feu et sur les machines propres à développer cette puissance (Reflections on the motive power of heat and on machines capable of developing that power.

He declared firmly that “the production of motive power in a steam engine is due not to an actual consumption of caloric but to its passage from a hot body to a cold one” (Carnot’s italics). the piston returned to the starting position. Because of the way he constructed it. sticky valves. the cylinder was charged with steam at the high temperature. During the work phase. on the other hand. and all manner of other imperfections? Here was where Carnot’s ingenuity blossomed into true originality. He imagined a furnace maintained at some constant high temperature. This sounds all very well. third. Carnot imagined. cooling and expanding as it did. Ideally. spent steam was discharged at the low temperature. Each cycle was then identical and independent. or rather. but Carnot’s cycle is by design highly idealized. the piston was released so that the charge of steam produced an amount of work. The conceptual obstacle to analyzing an engine was that complicated and interacting processes of heat transfer and work production occurred in what seemed to be a hopelessly entangled way. no heat was moving in or out. squeaking pistons. First. it had to come back to its starting position. Heat passes through an engine. if a certain amount of caloric moving from high to low temperature pro- . That is. Carnot untangled the problem by idealizing his cycle so as to isolate the roles of heat and work. going from the high to the low temperature. By isolating the operations of an engine into distinct steps of the cycle. Details aside. his cycle was reversible. finally. as he explicitly said. the trick here was that heat entered only at the high temperature and left only at the low temperature. but is not used up. second. while the spent steam was expelled from the piston at some constant low temperature. This is the mill wheel analogy. How can it help in understanding the working and efficiency of a real engine—an actual machine with leaky gaskets. the engine would also start each cycle with precisely the same conditions of temperature and pressure in the cylinder.CONUNDRUMS 67 a new stroke. Carnot was able to compare heat going in to work produced and thus ponder the engine’s efficiency—the amount of motive power obtained from a given quantity of heat. a given quantity of the supposed heat-fluid called caloric. in parts of the cycle where no work was being produced. He constructed a four-part cycle.

Carnot stated with great emphasis the connection between maximum efficiency and reversibility. ad infinitum.” Therefore. so it was a universal theoretical maximum. Engines did not have to run on steam. whether from the escape of steam or from conduction through metal parts. an ideal cycle running on air coupled to another cycle running on steam. a hypothetical engine that could produce a greater amount of work from the same transfer of caloric. He declared roundly: “This would be not only perpetual motion. It is inadmissible. had invented an engine in which heated air pushed a piston. applied so as to run the engine backward. he concluded. Moreover. but in reverse. Carnot had constructed an idealized engine cycle with an efficiency that could not be surpassed by any other engine. Carnot said. Now imagine. but an unlimited creation of motive power without consumption either of caloric or of any other agent whatever. Such a creation is entirely contrary to ideas now accepted. would push precisely the same amount of caloric “uphill. He could use part of the work from such an engine to run his cycle backward and push all the caloric back to the higher temperature—and he would have some work left over.68 Degrees Kelvin duced. This would mean he could create work by shunting a finite amount of caloric from high temperature to low and back again. If the efficiency of the air engine was greater than the efficiency of the steam engine. then that same quantity of work. Therefore the efficiency of the two engines had to be the same. it would not be restored if one ran the engine backward. the Reverend James Stirling. He offered one final extension of his reasoning. a certain amount of work. via his ideal engine. he said. A Scotsman. No other engine could do better. Although Carnot concluded his analysis by using what knowledge he could find of the properties of steam to estimate actual work production by typical en- . It therefore represented a theoretical maximum. Now imagine. the ideal cycle he had devised was the most efficient possible means to create work from transfer of caloric. to the laws of mechanics and of sound physics. The efficiency must then be smaller.” from the lower to the higher temperature. this efficiency must be the same regardless of the engine’s working substance. If any heat was lost in the running of the engine. To sum up. it would be possible as before to move heat uphill without a net expenditure of work.

He failed to find a copy of Carnot’s treatise in Paris. Carnot was an early exponent of scientific writing according to the principle “say what you’re going to say. To engineers occupied with making their furnaces and cylinders as heat tight as possible. Heat had fascinated him since he encountered Fourier. he failed to attract much interest. He had embraced the strategy of tying mathematical reasoning to empirical knowledge rather than abstract principles. For this Carnot has to take some of the blame. with pages of numerical results arriving seemingly out of nowhere. was the perfect reader. On top of that. Carnot’s abstract pronouncements about an imaginary kind of ideal cycle seemed spectacularly beside the point. His style of exposition was clear and emphatic in places. he could not establish a completely general formula. however. the Réflexions sank immediately into obscurity. 10 years later.” To mathematical scientists of the French school accustomed to tight algebraic exposition. starting from next to nothing. Few who did understood it. Carnot’s essay of 1824. cryptic and obscure at some crucial and delicate points. with his brother James. yet at the end provided tables of numbers representing the work that could be got out of an ideal steam engine working at certain temperatures. The prospective audience—natural philosophers with mathematical inclinations yet interested in working out the theory of an industrial machine—barely existed. say it. though.CONUNDRUMS 69 gines. He did demonstrate. not mathematics. William Thomson. he had grown up in an industrial city and. and wrote down a simple mathematical statement of the main result. and worrying about seals and friction and lever arms. It was utterly without precedent and dense with implications. Hardly anyone read it. then say what you just said. and so on. had made toy steam engines and other machines as a child. simplified some of Carnot’s arguments. And certainly it made no impact among French scientists. created in a single burst of originality the foundations of a new science relating heat and work. during the Thomson family’s summer outing at . that the efficiency could depend only on the upper and lower temperatures between which the engine cycled. his work came across as an exercise in rhetoric. He argued in words. but he studied Clapeyron’s paper and. using a certain amount of coal. Published privately in an edition of 600 copies. Even when Clapeyron. left out some of his shakier reasoning.

from the early. as far as I know. son of the astronomy professor. and generally gets through with his subject.” Talking of his later career Nichol added: “I believe some of his inventions were excellent. seemed wanting in some sort of mental perspective. is I think a very beautiful piece of reasoning. he told his brother James about it. and James came second. He was crotchety and apt to be sulky with those who would not enter into his crotchets. and each holds forth about quite different matters. the professor’s oldest son. so that nothing else can be got in when he is present. John Nichol. here. would have been celebrated as an extraordinarily bright young man had he not been blessed with an even more extraordinarily bright younger brother.70 Degrees Kelvin Knock Castle on the Ayrshire coast. but the more telling difference was that he tended (rather like his father) to be cautious and circumspect. and neither listens. great as was his insight. It is really comic to see how both brothers talk at one another. you told me the substance at Knock. but cares for nothing except engineering. Some months later James found a copy for himself and wrote to William: “The preliminary part.” When the brothers were old men. A. recalled: “Of the sons I liked James the best. full of good ideas. the engineer J.” James Thomson. but there was always some practical obstacle which prevented their bringing to the inventor either the fame or fortune they merited. Ewing had much the same impression: “It was also. He began attending his father’s lectures at the age of 10. at other times he could seem merely pedantic and unimaginative. and of course is perfectly satisfactory. middle. Sometimes he seemed more profound or rigorous. his faults end.” In the 1860s the German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz visited William Thomson in Glasgow and while there met James. James was perhaps a little slower than his brother. difficult not to be impatient. and had very little sense of time. Almost every year William won first prize in the class. He wrote to his wife that James “is a level-headed fellow. Three sketches. But the engineer is the most stubborn. and late parts of his life. furnish a consistent portrait of James Thomson. but 8-year-old William already outshone him. of wh. sometimes. There was never a . for James. James was an idealist in his way. and talks about it ceaselessly all day and all night.

In 1842 James started at Horseley’s. which cost tens of thousands of pounds each. delightfully named Mrs. James wrote to contrast his situation: “I wish my apprenticeship was as nearly done as yours. But later letters complain of a lack of work coming into Horseley’s (as well as a lack of letters coming from William). in a pleasant part of town.” After their youthful studies in Glasgow. a company in Walsall. As William approached his final exams. The following year he went down to London.” . Occasionally one listened to his argument as the wedding guest listened to the tale of the ancient mariner. and went into a series of apprenticeships at engineering companies. a factor that may have both suited and reinforced his natural inclination to extreme carefulness. otherwise he could not have entered Cambridge as an undergraduate. rowed. James returned home to Glasgow. with no great enthusiasm. There was no undergraduate engineering school to attend in those days. and found after only a couple of months that the company he had become attached to was about to be sold. and by early summer of 1843 the company had failed. Technical men and inventors learned their craft on the job. walked. he reported. James wrote to him of a harsher reality: “I have a good many warnings about taking care of my fingers among the machinery. close to Birmingham in the smoky industrial heartland of England. and played music among the elegant buildings and sumptuous gardens of Cambridge. it was devastatingly thorough and would tolerate no admission of even the most obvious preliminaries. not at all smoky except when the wind blew wrong. sometimes not.” Another letter (from his lodgings. but even when it is done. wondering not so much when it would end as when it would really begin. James took his B.CONUNDRUMS 71 flaw in his logic. William did not take his degree. Grim’s) speaks of a boiler blowing up and killing a man. errors cost money. By the end of the year he was in Manchester. sometimes picking up analytical skills along the way. James helped draw up blueprints for iron bridges.A. Mr Bell’s son has got 3 off his right hand and another of the pupils has just returned from London where he went to get his hand taken care of after having taken off one finger and destroyed another. I fear I shall have no such comfortable berth to step into as that which is probably waiting for you. While William studied.

fatigued and listless. and James wrote to William to say how he knew from experience that it was “really a most painful and distressing thing. At the Oxford BA meeting. While he and William were puzzling over Clapeyron. was not an ailment but a treatment. and keeping abreast of the activities of scientific men across Great Britain. A couple of years later Elizabeth was subjected to the same doctoring. and on one of his walking trips in Europe he had damaged a knee that never fully healed.” Regularly he received an “infusion of digitalis” to bring down the pulse. He had a “blister over my heart wh kept me in bed for a fortnight” and afterward had “a silk cord put through my skin with the ends left out so as to cause a permanent running. William went to Oxford for the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. an . also known as Spanish fly or blister beetle. he was diagnosed with a weak heart and returned to the family home in Glasgow where he received medical attention typical of the era. He had often suffered through colds and infections. had already established its annual meeting as the prime venue for announcing new results. the Royal Society had by midcentury largely regained its former reputation. Early in 1845. In the summer of 1847. still unable to find Carnot’s original essay.” Secluded in the Thomson home in Glasgow and unable to enter on any more apprenticeships. Thomson met James Prescott Joule. The irritation and subsequent infection were meant to scold the heart into working harder. founded in 1831 by a group of young reformers exasperated by the fuddyduddies who ran the venerable Royal Society. which had degenerated in the early 19th century into more of a London club for aristocratic dilettantes than a scientific organization. their project of understanding the scientific principles of steam power came sharply up against a new and seemingly contradictory piece of information.72 Degrees Kelvin Then ill health brought him down. it should be explained. gentlemen. A blister might be induced by burning or by the application of a poultice containing the dried bodies of cantharides. This organization.” A blister over the heart. Facing pressure from the BA and other new scientific groups. engineers. sounding out one’s colleagues. and he was instructed to take “no animal food or spirits of any kind. James pursued his theoretical investigations of engineering matters. and academics in equal measure. The BA attracted amateurs. in contrast to the Royal Society.

He was an active member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. A visiting German scientist. James Joule began to do scientific experiments. smoky steam engines in Manchester. when he “had the courage to say that it is the honour of science to be of no use. William Joule & Son became the biggest brewer in the English midlands. As with the analogy to water power. perhaps motivated in part by the rapidly growing abundance of noisy.CONUNDRUMS 73 example of the new scientific man emerging from the industrial revolution. His first project. Similarly. Thereafter Joule largely educated himself in science and engineering. a Mancunian who discovered strict numerical laws of proportions in chemical reactions and had gone on to propose the existence of atoms. True to its mercantile origins. such as those James Thomson apprenticed for. but a general lesson urged itself on Joule’s mind. The Lit & Phil. Carl Jacobi. while engineering companies.” While working in the family brewery. could cause an armature to rotate without itself being affected. 1A . established in 1781 as an intellectual forum for the emerging middle classes of the industrial city. In modern idiom. the society held to a firm belief in the practicality of science. It seemed not impossible at the time that electromagnetic motive power might be limitless. recalled speaking to the members of the Lit & Phil in 1842. Joule soon discovered. appropriately arranged. you can’t get something for nothing. Born into a successful Manchester brewing family. began publishing its own scientific journal in 1785. as it was known. was an investigation of electric motors (invented by Faraday in 1821) as not only a cleaner alternative but potentially a more efficient and therefore cheaper one. came and went.1 Joule had studied for a while with the great chemist John Dalton. and had the resources to support a substantial laboratory in his own house. He observed that a current passing through an electromagnet will generate a certain amount truism about the California gold rush is that those who did best out of it were the hoteliers and suppliers of pick axes and panning equipment. which provoked a powerful shaking of heads. was not the case. This. He found that electricity passing down a wire creates heat in proportion to the square of the current. This was mysterious. He found that as electric motors were made bigger. their coils somehow developed a resistance to the applied magnetic field that was trying to turn them. it appeared that a magnetic field.

He used a known force to turn a paddle in an enclosed container of water and again looked for a temperature increase. in some other form and. when efficiently and completely transformed. a London journal founded in 1798 specifically to promote science of a practical. . he then noted that if the same magnet was part of a motor. always created an equivalent amount of heat. and measure. He arranged for a falling weight to turn a magnet and measured the current generated. This conversion factor he named the mechanical equivalent of heat. the Proceedings of the Royal Society being especially resistant. In 1847 in Oxford he presented his latest results. dinner.000 footpounds of mechanical effort was needed to heat one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. attracted mainly indifference. Over a period of years he satisfied himself of a fundamental principle: A certain quantity of mechanical work. In later years he joked that these rejections didn’t surprise him.” he said. using what he re- 2An irregular line can be drawn roughly east to west across the middle of England. Joule’s presentations of his findings to British Association meetings. the conversion of mechanical energy into heat. Incalculable social consequences follow. a magnetic force—were somehow reduced. Getting his results published proved difficult.74 Degrees Kelvin of heat. they take breakfast. in an equivalent amount. Joule became a stickler for measuring things accurately and convinced himself that if one effect of an electric current—heat. in Cork in 1843 and in Cambridge in 1845 (which Thomson is known to have attended). whatever was lost had to show up somewhere else. mechanical power. crucially important. He forced water through narrow pipes and measured the temperature increase. “I could imagine. to the north. South of this division. then lunch. Even so. “these gentlemen in London sitting around a table and saying to each other: ‘What good can come out of a town where they dine in the middle of the day?’”2 Joule had more luck with the Lit & Phil journal and the Philosophical Magazine. empirical nature. These studies led him to experiment on. and in the ungainly units of the day he concluded that a quantity between about 600 and 1. people eat breakfast. and tea. then dinner. the amount of heat generated was reduced according to the amount of work the motor did.

” At a reception that evening at the elegant Radcliffe Camera. creating mechanical work as it went. In the audience was the new Glasgow professor. Thomson “felt strongly impelled at first to rise and say that [Joule’s conclusion] must be wrong. and said my say to Joule himself.” Thomson recalled. “I gained ideas which had never entered my mind before. used mechanical work to move a quantity of heat from a low temperature to a higher one.” but “as I listened on and on. therefore. but he saw something new and of profound significance. who was overjoyed to find someone taking him seriously— and someone who was. . Joule had concluded that it took a little over 780 foot-pounds of effort to heat one pound of water through one degree Fahrenheit. He quickly developed a sympathy with Joule. A Carnot engine running in reverse. and a most important measurement to bring forward. He didn’t know what to make of Joule’s findings. By turning a paddle wheel to heat water.” . in his measured way.” he wrote to his father. but he seems to have discovered some facts of extreme importance. with the warning “I enclose Joule’s papers which will astonish you. wrote back two weeks later with his interim verdict: “I certainly think [Joule] has fallen into blunders [but] some of his views have a slight tendency to unsettle the mind as to the accuracy of Clapeyron’s principles. the two spoke further. at the end of the meeting. as for instance that heat is developed by the fric[tion] of fluids in motion. Joule had certainly a great truth and a great discovery. . telling him to tell James to look out for reports of Joule’s work. So instead of rising with my objection to the meeting.CONUNDRUMS 75 garded as his most trustworthy method. A little later Thomson sent copies of Joule’s works to his brother.” James. Though skeptical. I saw that . by reputation. “Joule is I am sure wrong in many of his ideas. According to his own recollection 35 years later. and I thought too I suggested something worthy of Joule’s consideration when I told him of Carnot’s theory. I waited till it was over. the rising star of British science. William Thomson. who at this time was wholly persuaded of Carnot’s principle that heat passed through a steam engine unchanged in quantity. but now here was this man Joule saying that he could use mechanical work to create heat. Thomson was impressed by Joule’s modest sincerity and earnestness and by the obvious care with which he had conducted his experiments.

judging by scraps of evidence from his correspondence. & was now on his wedding tour. his inventions are rarely for self-aggrandizement. had recently come to Scotland as professor of mathematics at St. His wife was in a car. At the time of the meeting he gave his father a simpler account. As we were going different ways. Having seen a . Thomson’s charming tale. he had an unexpected encounter. and a carriage with a lady in it not far off. we had of course only a few minutes to speak. just to make a good story. and Joule had asked about the feasibility of measuring the temperature of waterfalls. I met. later companion. enjoyed a social life.” In other words. Andrews University. his old Cambridge rival. Thomson continued to puzzle over the apparent contradiction between Carnot and Joule but for the moment could see no way forward.76 Degrees Kelvin Thomson’s first meeting with Joule had an odd postscript.” Looking for a temperature increase from the top to the bottom of a waterfall was a more hopeful than plausible way of finding out the heat generated by motion. “Before leaving the St Martin road. coming up a hill. Thomson had told Joule he was going to Switzerland. When I saw him before. Thomson traveled to Paris and then to Switzerland. recounted many years later. to see if it might answer. From the end of July to early September. We found it too much broken into spray. with whom I had recently become acquainted at Oxford. is a fine example of his capacity for embellishment. He told me he had been married since we parted at Oxford! and he was going to try for elevation of temperature in waterfalls. and look at the Cascade de Sallanches. Near Chamonix. walking. meeting scientists but mainly enjoying a walking holiday. pondered other scientific problems and. he had no idea of being in Switzerland (he had even wished me to make some experiments on the temperature of water in waterfalls) but since that time had been married. in the French Alps. Thomson was fond of these occasional ornamentations. To his credit. *** Settling into his new life in Glasgow. Ludwig Fischer. We trysted to meet a few days later at Martigny. with a long thermometer in his hand. As he recalled it 35 years later: “Whom should I meet walking up but Joule. In the meantime he developed his lecture courses. The long thermometer that Joule carried while his new bride waited patiently in the carriage seems to be pure invention. Mr Joule.

.CONUNDRUMS 77 note from Thomson to another Cambridge friend. Now don’t you go for to flirt with any young women at Oxford remember ‘them’. & made me there & then. William always used to ask me to take him home at 12 o’clock.” Earlier in the year J. Fischer wrote: “I must say I am not at all satisfied with the ‘pious’ wish you express at the end concerning matrimony. . Dykes. I learn from good authority. but he was generally unwilling to come so soon. B. The young wife of a Glasgow friend recalled: “I was asked to go to balls to chaperone him. but William evidently found a taste for . I hope you will authorize me immediately to contradict it.” And when he took up his Glasgow professorship. mentioned by you in your epistle & more especially that heinous sin of flirtation.” Elizabeth and Anna had tried teaching their brothers to dance when they were young. . on the spot. a most beneficial & salutary influence upon me. But Thomson was clearly no dry academic. I felt most keenly the force of your remarks. The ballroom was a dirty trades hall badly lighted and with second rate music. . had responded to some sort of jokingly admonitory letter from Thomson: “Your most grave & sober counsel had. & that they were so very much to the point inasmuch as I felt convinced that they came from ‘a party’ who was quite conversant with the topics on wh: he wrote & who in his daily & nightly serenades & promenades & searches after ‘them’ would have himself experienced so lately those pleasant & touching little sensations which he so wisely & properly reprehended in me. . repent in dust & ashes for my sins of omission & commission.” These fragments give a sense of young men adopting a bluff and jocular style to hide their unworldliness. you have made the most favorable impression. having hoped that your attention might have been much engaged at Oxford by certain young ladies. . though at the time William in particular “professed utter scorn.” James never danced. . . on whom. I rejoice to say. . an undergraduate musical friend on his way to a career in the church. another friend dashed off this warning: “Mind you don’t get married before you are aware of it—you are in a very dangerous position now—all the prudent mammas in Glasgow will be asking you to tea—but take care!” following up two months with a rumor lacking any foundation: “There is a tremendous report afloat in Cambridge about you—viz—that you are supposed to be married.

the Thomson family was intact except for Anna. and its victims this time included the 62-year-old and visibly aging Professor James Thomson. though he was careful to conceal it. or for the benefits it brought. The two younger Thomson sons. were adequate but not outstanding scholars. When he had returned to Glasgow in 1846. the youngest child. Within a couple of days. 1849. on whose education their father had lavished less personal attention. “Elizabeth! Elizabeth Thomson! Oh it is a dear name. hurrying rapidly from one to another. He died on January 12. The following October Elizabeth. at first went into the business world. She set off in a tearful farewell from the Glasgow docks. John caught a fever. winning the second prize in medical studies at the end of the 1846-1847 session. then lapsed suddenly into a delirium. calling out urgently for his daughters and becoming calmer when he thought they were beside him.” he called out. His end came quickly. John. learning the ropes in a commercial warehouse in Glasgow. .” Aunt Agnes wrote to Elizabeth of her father’s last moments. her father and siblings not at all sure they would see her again. he explained. But studying to be a doctor was a perilous path. a lively and amusing youngster. William described events in a letter to David King.78 Degrees Kelvin it. while doing his rounds at the hospital. he was dead. Robert Thomson. He would rather be happy than make money. at the age of 21. He appeared weak but not overly unwell. But in May 1844 he was pleased to write to William in Cambridge to say that he had given up his job—“regular drudgery” he called it—and planned to study medicine. suffering from unspecified ill health. looked after by their Aunt Agnes Gall. which was also William’s first session as professor. The rest still lived with their father. That winter cholera struck Glasgow once more. In April. “He burst out rather faintly into a very incoherent set of expressions of numbers in all varieties of arithmetical denominations. who was married and living in Belfast. Elizabeth’s husband. and they lived elsewhere in the city. sailed to Jamaica to convalesce. Elizabeth had married the Reverend David King in 1843. and giving the answer or saying ‘That’s right! Now. Anna Bottomley came over from Belfast as soon as she could but too late to see her father alive. and Elizabeth suspected he took private lessons as a young Glasgow bachelor. what is seven hundred and eighty-six inches equal to?’ and so on for several minutes. He did well. Further departures followed.

described by Fourier’s theory. A letter from him to William survives. Thomson soon discovered he had not been as original as he first thought. moved to Belfast in 1851 and became a temporary professor of engineering at Queen’s College. Thomson added a note to his paper in the Cambridge Mathematical Journal mentioning Chasles. but was soon writing to his father asking for help on unloading it. In 1850. *** Carnot’s essay on motive power was not the only forgotten treatise that came to influence Thomson’s early career. In this equivalence. He never returned to Britain and died in 1905. William bought stock apparently on Robert’s advice. where he married and had children. In 1846 he joined the Scottish Amicable Insurance Office. Elizabeth returned to Glasgow. In one of his undergraduate publications. a year after his father died. and Thomson could find no trace of his obscure treatise. Recovering from her illness. It is a brief letter of introduction to William—Sir William Thomson by then—on behalf of a Melbourne colleague of Robert’s who was coming to England for some months. In the Journal de Mathématique a few years earlier the Frenchman Michel Chasles had published related geometrical theorems. A former Cambridge man. A brief citation in another paper suggested that both his and Chasles’s results had been anticipated in a work titled An Essay on the Application of Mathematical Analysis to the Theories of Electricity and Magnetism. Robert emigrated to Australia. leaving a son. perhaps feeling overshadowed by his brother’s increasing reputation.CONUNDRUMS 79 had attained good health after surviving two surgeries to remove stones. privately published in 1828 by George Green. Meanwhile James. Thomson had found a mathematical equivalence between the flow lines of heat. but in 1857 she died. He won permanent appointment in 1854. starting on £20 a year—a tenth of the value of William’s Cambridge fellowship. . Green had died in 1841. as proposed by Faraday. although he had not made the physical connection between heat and electricity. written in April 1885 on notepaper of the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society in Melbourne. He and Anna were close. James Thomson Bottomley. and the geometry of electric lines of force. contours of constant temperature corresponded to electrically charged surfaces. But then he discovered a still earlier precedent. at the age of 37.

word of Green got to another French mathematician. In Paris. especially when their shapes are more complex. who had also published similar ideas. along with his own explanatory essay. Thomson now discovered. had established a whole range of mathematical theorems concerning the geometry of electric and magnetic forces and the distribution of charges and magnets. of which Thomson left with two.) Green. whereupon Hopkins said he thought he had a copy. Riffling through the pages. Thomson wrote a short proof of the equivalence of Faraday’s lines of force and the inverse square. The total force between the two extended bodies is . Some years later Thomson arranged for the republication of Green’s work in a continental journal. action-at-a-distance picture preferred by the French. Thomson mentioned to Hopkins on the evening before he left Cambridge for Paris that he was intrigued by references to Green but hadn’t been able to find the Essay. (An oddity of this tale is that Hopkins was surely familiar with Thomson’s published papers. but didn’t make the connection until Thomson brought it up. At Liouville’s prompting. such as a metal sphere. Going to Hopkins’s rooms. like everyone else. can be calculated in principle from the inverse square law. Between each point of one surface and each point of the other a force exists. apparently knew of Green’s Essay. One evening an excited Sturm had come to Thomson’s lodgings on the Rue M. as well as to Faraday’s vision. Charles Sturm. to his own Cambridge training. eager to see the fabled Essay. The force between one such body and another. carries electricity all over its surface when charged. Now equipped with Green’s resurrected mathematics. This work owed something to formal French rigor.80 Degrees Kelvin According to another perhaps retrospectively enhanced anecdote. they found three copies. one for himself and one for Liouville. A conducting body. he exclaimed “Ah! Voilà mon affaire!” when he caught sight of Green’s prior proof of his own theorem. Le Prince. he developed to a high degree of sophistication a new geometrical account of electric forces and charges. hadn’t read Green or he told Thomson about it earlier. and certain theorems first associated with other names are now correctly known as Green’s. But that would have spoiled the story. but only with difficulty. Either Hopkins. Most notable was his introduction of “images” in solving electrical problems.

Faraday was born in 1791. the conducting surface of an electrically charged body can be related to a set of charges with the appropriate arrangement—and calculating from a finite number of points is easier than dealing with an extended body of arbitrary shape. he explained. Back in Cambridge. the third of three children. The two men’s mental powers. Thomson proved that in terms of their electrical effects a charged body of some given geometry must be equivalent to a set of suitably placed points of electrical charge. Those contours bear a specific relationship to the heat sources that produced them. worked in utterly different ways. Faraday and Thomson corresponded only occasionally over the years.CONUNDRUMS 81 the sum of all these increments. constructed his physics entirely without the aid of mathematics. a number of Faraday’s assertions about the nature of electrical phenomena could be demonstrated. His father had difficulty finding work and was often in poor health. had a greater power of pure imagination than Michael Faraday. “My edu- . No scientist. was a specialty of the French mathematicians. both acute. or several. an archetypal exercise in integral calculus. Likewise. A source of heat. Faraday was at the meeting and spoke with Thomson. The family lived in cramped conditions above a coach house in an area that today is on the fringe of London’s affluent West End. was that by taking Coulomb’s inverse square law of electrical attraction and repulsion. Despite this promising start. will after a time lead to contours of temperature throughout the medium. and applying the mathematical methods devised by Green. but for complex geometries the solution quickly becomes intractable. The import. Thomson talked of his ideas at the British Association meeting there in June. which he had partly rediscovered for himself. not even Newton or Einstein. gratified that mathematical argument bore out his beliefs. by contrast. Such a problem. Yet again Fourier’s treatment of heat flow provided the germ of the idea. placed within some medium. The son of a blacksmith who had moved down from Yorkshire to London during economically troubled times. for the simple reason that he knew no mathematics. Faraday. I believe. Thomson could never fully understand or even contemplate a proposition until he had given it precise mathematical form. Thomson showed.

He was by . in their paternalistic but sincere Victorian way. was sufficiently impressed by the apprentice’s avid work that he gave Faraday tickets to hear lectures by the celebrated chemist Sir Humphrey Davy at the Royal Institution. Dance. He left school at 13 and apprenticed to a bookseller and binder. George Riebau. writing. near Piccadilly Circus and barely more than half a mile from the Faradays’ meager lodgings. a Mr. but Riebau was a generous and large-spirited man. Michael Faraday was single-minded in the task of self-improvement. My hours out of school were passed at home and in the streets. Faraday merely took notes and tried to perform at home the experiments Davy recounted. joining it in early 1810. The City Philosophical Society was one such institution. consisting of little more than the rudiments of reading. when he was 18 years old. He began to read the works he bound. apt to make the young ladies in his audience swoon. participated nervously at first in discussions of history. Faraday was fanatical and orderly in taking notes and bound up his autodidactic writings in volumes that George Riebau showed off to some of his customers.” Faraday recalled. Apprenticeships were often little more than indentured servitude. Philanthropists and social progressives. Forming friendships with other young men. and arithmetic at a common dayschool.82 Degrees Kelvin cation was of the most ordinary description. and he put together a little chemistry laboratory to try out what he read. Faraday. Not unlike William Thomson’s father. he sought to acquire good English and learn some French. When he was 21 Faraday’s apprenticeship came to an end. and science. and Riebau encouraged young Faraday to stay after hours and study whatever interested him. who deserves recognition as one of the unsung heroes of scientific history. Industrialization and urbanization in the 19th century brought hordes of poor and uneducated young men into the growing cities. He read about electricity and chemistry in the Encyclopedia Britannica and with a few spare pennies bought old glass jars from a rag-and-bone shop to do his first experiments. Faraday at first worked as an errand boy but soon began to learn bookbinding. One such regular. philosophy. Sir Humphrey was a dashing man and a thrilling speaker. founded evening schools and discussion societies to bring education and intellectual discourse to the working classes.

with accommodation provided and use of laboratory equipment in his spare time. and in later years almost his only concession to the social graces was his annual attendance of the anniversary dinner of the Royal Institution. who died in 1771 in Connecticut having failed to establish an American branch of his religion. and Faraday. In the salons of the great cities of Europe. on the understanding he was to be Davy’s technical assistant. Apreece. They married among themselves. Faraday had learned some chemistry and other science. as luck would have it. Faraday’s family belonged to an exclusive and self-contained Protestant sect. By the time they returned to England in 1815. A few weeks later. Lady Davy regarded him as a manservant. in between resisting Lady Davy’s instructions to haul luggage or shine shoes. In Paris he brought out his traveling chemistry kit and showed that a strange purple vapor was a new element. He explained once: “I do not think I could . in 1813. Faraday met some of the great men of Europe. which he called iodine. Faraday avoided as far as possible civic events and functions. but above all he had learned that salon life was not for him. the Sandemanians. began working there. even if he was the object of the honor. Davy parlayed his scientific talents into a kind of showmanship. In Florence he experimented on small diamonds that the Grand Duke of Tuscany sacrificed for science and proved that diamond was a form of pure carbon. The Sandemanians believed in salvation through faith and thus rejected as coarsely utilitarian the more usual Protestant idea of redemption through good works. the wealthy widow Mrs. He had no students and rarely collaborated with others. marrying Sarah Bernard in 1821. He wrote to Davy for a job at the Royal Institution and got sympathy but no immediate help.CONUNDRUMS 83 then too rapt by science to settle for the reliable but dull life of a bookbinder. Soon after that an assistant at the institution was thrown out for unruly behavior. In his long life he never worked anywhere else. He did not so much despise society as wish to live apart from it. Six months later Faraday embarked on an 18-month grand tour of Europe with Davy and his new wife. Davy injured an eye in an experimental mishap and called on Faraday to assist him. as Faraday did. They lived according to a strict and simple interpretation of biblical guidance written down in the middle 18th century by Robert Sandeman. Their social life was almost wholly among the Sandemanians.

are sure to be in part wrong. he preparing some lecture apparatus or cleaning up. He objected vehemently to the idea that a force could act instan- . if I correct by other experiments. believed that the idea of points acting on each other through empty space was inadmissible. rather than an entity in its own right. evidenced by its imperfection. In experiments I come to conclusions which. However dubious these propositions. The purpose of scientific investigation was to shed light. Sometimes I and my assistant have been in the laboratory for hours and days together. This attitude colored Faraday’s scientific work. such an attitude was hardly conducive to the promotion of a scientific career. After spending his early research years mainly on chemical work (notably he succeeded in liquefying chlorine). rather than as the summation of discrete forces between isolated objects. a calm acceptance of the fallibility and imperfection of humanity. Instead he argued that forces pervading space were fundamental and that matter was in essence the manifestation of a resistance to force. Work was its own justification. Even in the innocent days of the 19th century. but is always left with a tinge of humanity.84 Degrees Kelvin work in company. via Davy. he moved into electrochemistry (reactions stimulated by the passage of electric currents through solutions) and thence into his pioneering and utterly original studies of electricity and magnetism. Faraday resisted occasional attempts to draw him into professorial positions elsewhere and only intermittently attended meetings and conferences where he might explain his findings and opinions. for reasons best left to philosophy. “In all kinds of knowledge I perceive that my views are insufficient. who had become a great proselytizer for Naturphilosophie after he spent 1798 in Germany. and my judgement imperfect. if partly right. my old error is in part diminished. by German philosophical views.” Central to the Sandemanians was a pious humility. the false allure of reputation and public acclaim. or think aloud. Kant. however feebly. and scarcely a word has passed between us. Above all he turned away from worldly vanities. Davy was close to the poet Coleridge. and thus praise Him. I advance a step. on God’s design. they stimulated Faraday to think of electric and magnetic effects as influences spreading throughout space. Faraday was to an extent influenced.” he wrote to his brother-in-law. or explain my thoughts at the time.

he thought electric and magnetic influences must propagate from one place to another. Faraday imagined that when he passed a current through one of the coils. Thus. the lines of force remained static. not a steady flow. Once the magnetism was steady. Much of Henry’s work on electricity and magnetism parallels Faraday’s. If a current could create a magnetic force. a permanent magnet placed beside a wire will do nothing. generating a current. magnetic lines of force sprang away from it and cut through the other. . carrying tension and perhaps inertia. In 1831. made the same discovery of electromagnetic induction at the same time.3 Thus did Faraday’s conception of electromagnetism as a dynamic and extended phenomenon lead him to find a long-sought effect. Later that year he showed that moving a plain bar magnet near a coil could also create a 3The American scientist Joseph Henry. since Faraday lacked the means to translate it into mathematical propositions—it enabled him to design and perform quantitative experiments. where the old picture of static forces had borne no fruit. which he conceived almost as elastic links. who lent his name to the publisher of this book. Connecting a so-called galvanometer to one coil to detect any current. conjoined creatures inhabiting space. Instead. Qualitative though this picture was—as it had to be. But when he disconnected the circuit. It had been known since 1820 that a current passing along a wire would make an adjacent compass needle deflect. though it is not as well known mainly because American science itself was so little known then. His most celebrated discovery was probably his demonstration of electromagnetic induction. he touched the other coil to a battery and quickly disconnected it again. generating an opposite current as they retreated through the secondary coil. that made the galvanometer twitch one way when he connected the circuit. and the other way when he broke it again. the magnetic lines of force collapsed back again. it seemed to Faraday and many others that the complementary effect—a magnet creating a current—ought to occur too. and no current appeared. However. Faraday viewed electricity and magnetism as live. It was the pulse of current. Faraday took an iron ring six inches across and wound it with coils of fine wire on opposite sides. conveyed by some presumed medium—hence his lines of force.CONUNDRUMS 85 taneously across empty space.

For the small but growing number of practitioners who wished to make electrical calculations for the purpose of building machines and devices. William Thomson first encountered Faraday’s science in the early 1840s. He was a magnificent experimenter. but it was he more than anyone who originated the modern view of the electromagnetic field. Because this series of papers established relationships between . Thomson began a series of papers under the title “Mathematical Theory of Electricity in Equilibrium. as if he were some sort of idiot savant with an inexplicable knack for putting wires and magnets and batteries together in clever ways. the more wires each magnetic line of force cut through as it moved and the greater the current produced. almost in cartoons.86 Degrees Kelvin current. Where was the analytical proof? Where was the reduction of physical phenomena to quantities amenable to mathematical manipulation? Even now there is a tendency to praise Faraday with a tinge of condescension as a great but uneducated experimenter. His conception of magnetism. and though his experimental demonstrations were admirable. Following their initial meeting and correspondence in 1845. The greater the number of turns in the coil.” in which he devised a general system for dealing with distributions of electric charges and the forces they produced. substituting for the ailing Meikleham.” Faraday devised his scientific theories in pictures. but guiding his experiments was a powerful vision of electromagnetism. Thomson slowly came to appreciate Faraday’s insight. yielded quantitative predictions. He had one of the great theoretical minds in physics. his thought processes must have seemed to young Thomson quaint at best.” but in his Cambridge notebook from March 1843 we find him recording a long conversation with Gregory “in wh Faraday and Daniell [another electrical scientist] got (abused)2. Thomson’s methods were a boon. This was mathematics of a high order. it was also practical physics. that he was “inoculated with Faraday fire. when he was taking classes in Glasgow from David Thomson. qualitative though it was. Faraday was no mathematician. Those who can think of physical theories only in mathematical terms evidently have trouble understanding a theoretician who did not work the same way. Thomson claimed in his old age. It was then.

“I did not venture even to hint at the possibility of making it the foundation of a physical theory of the propagation of electric and magnetic forces. for example. such as a lump of gelatin.” Nonetheless a physical theory was what he had in mind. they made a start on capturing in mathematics Faraday’s picture of electricity as an extended and pervasive “tension” maintained somehow across space. In the first paper of the series. The geometry of magnetic forces. some kind of elastic solid. stuck a fork in it with the other. it would rebound to its original state on removal of the force. Thomson’s mathematics could equally be seen as a comprehensive elaboration of the consequences of inverse square laws and action at a distance. He had abandoned . and the influences they produced. proved crucial. Unlike a rigid solid. at least as a distant dream. as Faraday did. though slight. Thomson imagined. which had both resilience and flexibility. and twisted the fork a little). might flick to the left above the wire but to the right below. considered as effects spread throughout volumes or on surfaces. forces of electric attraction or repulsion had the same form as compression or tension in the medium. Thomson began to think. paralleled a mathematical description of a localized twist or rotation of the elastic medium (as if.CONUNDRUMS 87 charges. without adopting any physical hypothesis. Magnetism was trickier. how the properties of a physical medium could be connected to electric and magnetic influences. How rapidly his thinking evolved is evident from a paper he wrote in 1847 and sent to Faraday.” he explained to Faraday. In it he showed. Thomson showed that from a purely mathematical standpoint. “What I have written is merely a sketch of the mathematical analogy. He preferred to think of them “merely as actual truths. considered as points in space. Thomson showed. one held a lump of gelatin in one hand. in a very preliminary way. Thomson hedged his bets as to what his results meant. it would yield in response to an applied force. loosely speaking. But the point was arguable. of space as a medium supporting both electric and magnetic phenomena. unlike a liquid. in general terms. A compass needle deflected by a current passing along a wire.” The exchange of views between Faraday and Thomson. although the idea they naturally suggest is that of the propagation of some effect.


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the old action-at-a-distance philosophy in which one simply posited forces between particles in truly empty space. The idea of space as an electromagnetic medium was pressing on him. Since the same medium, he hoped, would eventually be seen to carry both kinds of effects, there was the ultimate prospect of connecting electricity and magnetism by means of a single fundamental theory. This was to be the preoccupation of a lifetime, but for the moment Thomson contented himself with working out a couple of long accounts of the geometry and mathematics of magnetic forces, as he had done for electricity. Further study of the presumed medium supporting these phenomena would come later.

Ten days after the death of Professor James Thomson, Hugh Blackburn wrote to Thomson to say he intended to put his name up for the vacant position. Like many Cambridge-trained mathematicians (at least those who didn’t want to enter the church), Blackburn had gone down to London to take up a legal career, but unlike Archibald Smith, he was finding no satisfaction in it. Thomson, while offering encouragement to his old undergraduate friend, tried to interest his colleague George Gabriel Stokes in coming to Glasgow. Stokes, five years older than Thomson, had been senior wrangler in 1841 and then became a fellow at Pembroke College. Like Thomson, he applied his mathematical knowledge to questions of physics and achieved important results in optics and fluid mechanics. His Cambridge career was not yet secure, however, and the prospect of a lifetime appointment alongside his friend Thomson held many attractions. But he ran up against Glasgow rules. All professors had to sign the Westminster confession, by which they declared their allegiance to the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. This was meant to guarantee that faculty members would take no part in the kinds of religious turbulence that had disrupted Scottish life and politics since the days of the Covenanters. With his detestation of religious prejudice and sectarianism, Thomson’s father had campaigned against the religious test as a needless holdover from unenlightened times. It survived, largely because signing the confession was seen by younger men as a piece of meaningless bureaucracy. Stokes, however, was the son of an Anglican minister in County



Sligo, Ireland, and his three brothers all became churchmen. He was moreover a punctilious man. He arranged to have testimonials sent to the Glasgow faculty but immediately regretted doing so. A month after James Thomson’s death he wrote to William to explain that after consulting his older brother he decided he could not go through with the application. The “straightforward course is, to decline to take [the religious test] unless I am prepared to become a thorough Presbyterian, which certainly I do not mean to become. . . . It was all along a very doubtful question with me whether I could sign the test in a lax sense.” Laxity was fine with Thomson, however. Whereas his father had argued for the abolition of the test, as a matter of principle, Thomson’s solution was to let the thing slide. He himself, he explained to Stokes, regularly attended the Episcopal Church in Glasgow (the Scottish counterpart of the Church of England) and went to the Established Church (of Scotland) no more than “once or twice or three times in the course of a session.” Neither he nor his colleagues found anything objectionable in this. He told Stokes that “the amount of conformity to the Established Church which a conscientious observance by one in your position of the obligations imposed by the tests, would really be in no way inconvenient, or repugnant to your feelings.” He added: “It will be a very serious blow to the interest of this University if an honest member of the Church of England should never be able to be a candidate for any situation or office connected with it, however valuable an acquisition he might be; on account of an act of Parliament framed at a period of great political & ecclesiastical excitement; and allowed to continue unmodified in these settled times, merely because the modifications that those who have the interests of the University most at heart would be inclined to have made, are such that only those parts of the Act which are at present practically inoperative, would be abolished.” No doubt this was an accurate assessment. The rule was still on the books, but everyone agreed to look the other way, except perhaps for some of the older and more conservative men, whose opinions hardly counted anyway. Thomson was a conventionally religious man all his life and believed firmly that the rational working of the universe and the ability of science to describe it were signs of God’s immanent power. But for niceties of


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doctrine and points of observance he had no patience. Long ago, in the summer of 1834 or 1835, the vacationing Thomson family had gone to services at a local parish church where there happened to be a revival meeting. Their father was not there, and Elizabeth had charge of the boisterous youngsters. As the service proceeded and the preacher became more animated, members of the congregation began to moan and sway and throw their bibles in the air. This set William snickering, which set off the other children. The preacher, hearing the disturbance, interrupted his sermon, glared at the Thomson children, and pointed his finger at William. “Ye’ll no lach when ye’re in hell!” he thundered, at which William and the rest collapsed into a helpless fit of the giggles, leaving Elizabeth, red faced, to hustle the young heathens from the church. As an adult William learned to maintain his decorum, but he seems to have regarded church going as a necessary formality, bearing little relationship to his thoughts on God and the nature of the physical world. Stokes, by contrast, took these things seriously and would not go along with Thomson’s plan to sign the Glasgow religious test with his eyes closed, so to speak. In April 1849 the open mathematics chair went to Hugh Blackburn. Later that year Stokes became Lucasian Professor (Isaac Newton’s old position) and remained at Cambridge the rest of his life. Blackburn performed adequately as a teacher of mathematics but made no original contributions to his discipline. Stokes wrote voluminously on mathematical physics, ended up with a theorem,4 an equation in fluid mechanics, and some optical phenomena named after him, served for a long time as secretary of the Royal Society, oversaw in minute detail the production of the society’s Proceedings, and acted, through his indefatigable correspondence, as a guide and mentor to numerous mathematical physicists in Britain, Thomson included. That this career was lost to Glasgow University because of an antiquated rule might have been, in Professor James Thomson’s hand, an additional spur to long overdue reform. To William Thomson it was a matter of keen but passing regret.

4Stokes’s theorem actually came from Thomson in a letter in 1842. In the tripos a few years later Stokes asked candidates to prove this still unpublished result, and his name became attached to it. Thomson had no complaint about this, so far as I know.



He wrote to Stokes that “no case can prove the noxiousness of the [Glasgow] law . . . than the present one,” but he took the question no further. By contrast, Thomson threw himself with great energy into his new duties as Glasgow professor. He composed an opening lecture for the incoming class, which he delivered with minor variations each year for many decades. Science, he explained, began with natural history, which was the close observation and classification of material phenomena, and rose to the level of natural philosophy, which was the attempt to understand and connect those phenomena by rational means, expressed ultimately in the language of mathematics. Mechanics was the most mature of sciences, while electricity and magnetism were approaching that pinnacle. He threw in snippets from Francis Bacon and talked of the practicality and applications of science. He added a dash of religion, to say how science aimed to illuminate God’s handiwork: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained; What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou visitest him?” Science was to be undertaken in a spirit of humility and with a sense of wonder and beauty; nor should the ability of science to improve the lot of mankind be ignored. This was the nearest Thomson ever came to a philosophical statement of purpose. He struggled to compose the lecture and was not pleased with his first delivery. “According to his own account, it was a total failure,” Elizabeth wrote to her husband. “I think he had been very nervous, and he read much too fast. . . . He is very much disheartened, poor fellow.” As a lecturer, Thomson tended to be more enthusiastic than orderly. He tried to keep to a plan but could never resist the digressions that rained in on his mind. At his best, to an appreciative and sophisticated audience, he could be thrilling, inventing profound and provocative science as he spoke. When he gave his introductory lecture he generally tried harder to stick to his script, and the struggle detracted from his fluency and intensity. James Clerk Maxwell, the young Scots physicist who began to make inroads into electromagnetism in the middle 1850s, said that Thomson’s annual introductory lecture never managed to fill the hour and that “the lecturer was greatly downhearted at its conclusion.”


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With this weak essay at a grand purpose out of the way, however, Thomson moved into his regular scientific lectures with eagerness and delight. There he was never downhearted, always ready to share the joys of discovery and enlightenment with his pupils. But in his success at imparting information into lesser minds than his own, he got mixed reviews. Bright students liked his style. One recalled him as “an enthusiastic and inspiring teacher; he aroused and sustained the intelligent interest of his students. . . . No one could listen to him without being imbued with his spirit and being borne along the path he was travelling. . . . He was always in earnest, and when dealing with great problems spoke with the fervour of a missionary charged with a weighty message.” But another student, less overawed, more overwhelmed, said: “Explanation, it has to be confessed, was never his forte. He would say, ‘Look, see it and believe it.’” And from another: “Even in his introductory lectures Thomson soared to heights which made many of his class feel giddy and helpless.” Though he was patient with slower students, he seemed to think they were being obtuse, not that they had genuine difficulty understanding. He would prompt a struggling pupil more and more minutely, in smaller, easier steps, and finally say with bafflement rather than exasperation: “Now, Mr. Macintosh, why could you not have said so at first; why will you have me drag the information from you sentence by sentence, clause by clause, nay word by word?” Particularly distressing to Thomson was what he took to calling aphasia—the inexplicable but frequent phenomenon by which capable students were reduced to helpless, struggling silence by the most elementary of mathematical questions. These students, he said, “will not answer when questioned, even when the very words of the answer are put in their mouths, or when the answer is simply ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” Thomson read mathematics as easily as he read words and could not understand why others did not have the same facility. As a professor of natural philosophy he deserves credit for one fundamental innovation, which was the teaching of practical science through student experimentation. With his brother James he had made mechanical toys, but not until his visit to Paris did he attempt any measurement or manipulation in a scientific laboratory. Neither at Glasgow nor at



Cambridge nor anywhere else in Great Britain was experimental science taught; instead, men such as Joule figured it out for themselves, with some advice from their elders, while in Cambridge Stokes and others began to take up laboratory work on their own initiative and using their own resources. William Meikleham had not taught any experimental science and undertook no significant research either. When Thomson assessed his new professorial domain, he “found apparatus of a very old-fashioned kind. Much of it was more than a hundred years old, little of less than fifty years old, and most of it was of worm-eaten mahogany. . . . There was absolutely no provision of any kind for experimental investigation, still less idea, even, for anything like students’ practical work.” He credited Thomas Thomson, his former teacher and now faculty colleague at Glasgow, with having founded a laboratory for his chemistry students to work in. He wanted to work on problems in electromagnetism, and after setting up a laboratory he engaged his students to assist him. This became an essential part of his course in natural philosophy. He did not merely teach mathematical methods and explain what crucial information had emerged from experiments by others. He got the students to do the experiments themselves and to explore the subject in a practical way. It is hard to imagine now how physics could have been taught in a purely abstract way. But before 1846 it was, and Thomson was the first instructor in experimental physics. To further both his teaching and his research, he embarked on a battle with the Glasgow faculty reminiscent of his purchase of the “funny” only a few years earlier. He applied for money to buy equipment, spent it, spent more, and argued with his colleagues until they paid up. He took over vacant rooms near his lecture hall, turning an old wine cellar into his first laboratory, and when a larger room became vacant after some administrative change, Thomson “instantly annexed it (it was very convenient, adjoining the old wine-cellar and below the apparatus room); and, as soon as it could conveniently be done, obtained the sanction of the Faculty for the annexation.” There were protests and exchanges of letters, as there had been with his father, but Thomson committed the fait accompli and got his way. In both lecture room and laboratory, Thomson invariably slid from


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an exposition of textbook material into wide-ranging discussions of unsolved problems currently on his mind. This might confuse his students; it could also enthrall them. Sometimes they tried out standard exercises in the use of laboratory instruments; sometimes they helped Thomson with his latest research project. In overseeing such enterprises the young professor “had none of the air or manner of a superior.” As a teacher he may have flown often above the heads of his students but “he was never dull, never trivial, never commonplace.” “What I liked best,” said another student, “was when he left us to follow or not as we could, and went on thinking aloud, as he sometimes did. His mind was full of fancies, brimming over with metaphors.”

With his father and brother John dead, both sisters married and, after 1851, brothers James in Belfast and Robert gone to Australia, William Thomson was alone in the old family home except for his aunt and housekeeper, Agnes Gall. He went to dances with Jemima Blackburn, Hugh’s wife, as chaperone. Flirtations of an indeterminate nature came and went. His old friend Ludwig Fischer, at St. Andrews, wrote to him early in 1850: “I suppose it is out of the question your coming next week. Else we mean to have a Bachelor’s ball on Thurs the 28th, and I might have to offer you a faint resemblance of what you enjoyed at Edinburgh. Of course the Ladies of Scotch Craig, I spoke to you of have been invited. But I doubt whether they would come; nor have I heard whether the beautiful Fanny will be there.” Early in 1851 Thomson was elected fellow of the Royal Society, a few months before his 27th birthday. In that same year he twice proposed marriage to Sabina Smith, sister of Archibald. 5 Although Archibald Smith had encouraged Thomson’s academic career, congratulated him warmly on his successes, and in the end made no serious move to compete for the Glasgow chair, he advised his sister that “I really do not think you would be suited to each other.” She duly turned William
5This romance was uncovered by Crosbie Smith and M. Norton Wise and recounted in their book Energy and Empire (pp. 141-142), from which I have condensed these details.

William confessed to Sabina’s sister his “bitter bitter grief ” and many years later Sabina wrote of her regret at not resisting Archibald’s influence: “It was the extremity of folly to think I cd go on refusing a man. Again. I am going to be married. or personality. To Elizabeth William wrote of news which “I think will please you as much as it will surprise you. and as I told Mrs. for a third time. probably early in September. a Glasgow cotton merchant who was first cousin to William’s father. over the decades. she had seen young William Thomson evolve. I cannot describe her exactly to you.” He told Stokes that “sometime. James Thomson had detested old Mr. but I am sure that is unnecessary to ensure your good wishes at present. and his disappointment over Sabina Smith stifled any resurgence. A year later he tried again. I feel that in William’s love for his sisters and her. to a Miss Crum. The betrothal was sudden. “We have one interest in common that can never fail. This may have amplified Sabina’s remorse. at her brother’s urging though apparently against her own inclination. . whom he had known since childhood. His father was no longer around to advise him or to plan his campaigns. In any case. into the wealthy and celebrated Lord Kelvin.” Unfortunately no one else seems to have exactly described Margaret Crum either. Margaret knew his sisters. She and William appear to have embarked on some kind of alliance rather than a romance. so perhaps would have advised William against this entanglement in the first place. Sabina said no. and when you come down to see us in Scotland. She was the daughter of Walter Crum. and their letters to him while at Cambridge mention a number of visits by her but say little about her activities. As Margaret explained to Elizabeth. Smith and was no great admirer of Archibald. I am sure you will be glad to make her acquaintance. only three months after his final refusal by Sabina Smith. William became engaged to Margaret Crum.” William apparently set aside passion and deep feelings of the soul after he finished reading Evelina and Wilhelm Meister in Cambridge. a great figure in the land. & yet have him at my disposal whenever I choose!” By this time. Gall. interests. In July 1852.CONUNDRUMS 95 down. lies my best security for the continuation of those feelings on which the happiness of my life must now depend. however. Thomson was on his own now.

From a brief honeymoon in north Wales the following week. but whether or not. eight months after their marriage.96 Degrees Kelvin William Thomson and Margaret Crum were married in Glasgow on September 15. wrote of “a rather pretty woman. and has quite got rid of her cold. bleeding I long to die I saw a shadow in the night When thou dost come for me Margaret’s verses are doleful. To be fair. having met the Thomsons in Glasgow through mutual friends. monotonous. . In fact. I do not think either of us are going to apply to Dr. The first lines of her poems (published privately after her death) display a grim consistency. and a selection of them can be arranged almost to form a poem themselves: They have sung to thee. laying particular emphasis on the most dismal parts. but his wife makes no appearance in her recollections. she was an amateur poet. Brown to undo what he did on Tuesday. although she has just been saying to me that it is. and what is more. Few other impressions of Margaret are to be found. Jemima Blackburn recounts how William was a great friend and frequent visitor to the Blackburn household. she was 22. Hermann von Helmholtz.” On the other hand. This was a woman at least half in love with easeful death. and self-absorbed. the .” One may best interpret this as a piece of dour Scots humor or as the effort of a young man trying to impress an older married sister with his newly acquired sophistication. In May 1853. O grave! Ours is a short and evil day Wounded. . 1852. both before and after his marriage. she looks cheerful. but it does not seem so at all to me. He was 28 years old. Thomson please with his nice wife. Perhaps she is only joking. I scarcely think it does so to Margaret either. asked to “give my best regards to . very charming and intellectual” and the novelist William Thackeray. she had grounds for misery. William sent this account of an afternoon with his new wife: “The day is somewhat dark and cold. encountering her for the first time. and some people might say dreary.

” from which the following selection is ample: There’s many a wight sings of delight. . . When they life’s race began Said he. stand or sit upright without pain. 6A miscarriage possibly? Pure speculation on my part. “On Pain. . . My quick young feet him soon did meet.6 and for two years has been in such a state that she can’t walk. and Sicily. . will tell to you Of what I know—‘Tis pain. after meeting her. me! no more I ran. . long accustomed to hiking in the highlands. offered this explanation: Margaret was “in a wretched state. But I.” Whatever the cause. Malta. . Back in Scotland she stayed several weeks in Edinburgh for “surgical nursing. but Margaret wore herself out.” Helmholtz. this was a mere jaunt. Now where is rest. Before his face it fled. . taking in Gibraltar. He seized my hand instead. . Margaret’s health was such that she composed a poem. when such a guest Me ever followeth. Nor lets me clasp with desperate grasp The outstretched hand of Death. Who courteth her in vain. A year after her wedding she suffered an abdominal inflammation. more true. To William. and can only lie on her back. came home weak and ill. Joy did I meet and haste to greet. thy steps I’ll tend” Ah. . “As friend.CONUNDRUMS 97 Thomsons went on a Mediterranean tour. Love did I find and seek to bind. and though the nature of ailment remains unclear she was an invalid for the rest of her life.

I take her a drive nearly every day and sometimes twice in a little pony carriage. By next summer her health had not significantly improved. but she has not at all advanced in walking power. Thomson returned to his Paris discovery of the science of steam engines.98 Degrees Kelvin Thomson became nursemaid to his wife. In the years thereafter Thomson applied himself diligently and uncomplainingly to the care of his invalid wife. are direct physiological sensations. Early in the 18th century Gabriel Fahrenheit came up with recognizably modern thermometers that relied on the expansion of colored alcohol or mercury. *** After three years of thinking mostly about electricity and magnetism. But by avoiding all such exertion she keeps tolerably free from pain. although she had occasional better days that William seized on as grounds for hope. But we should not forget that in the middle of the 19th century all kinds of internal disorders were undiagnosable and untreatable. There was no theory to speak of behind these instruments. He reported to Elizabeth that “she looks much better . and has much the appearance of good health.” The appearance of good health is the most Margaret Thomson ever subsequently attained and that only intermittently. Still he had not seen Carnot’s essay and knew it only through Clapeyron. of course. Perhaps that suited him. . She became a duty rather than a passion. about temperature. perhaps amplifying an underlying problem. But these . but temperature is a difficult concept to make quantitative. as her poems suggest. and often from one room to another. Galileo invented his “thermoscope. But that was enough for him to turn one aspect of Carnot’s theory into an important realization. I always carry her up and down stairs. William was clearly of so accommodating a nature that his wife had no great incentive to improve. especially if. .” in which the expansion of air with rising temperature provided a crude numerical scale. It is easy for the modern reader to infer some variety of malingering on Margaret’s part. only the empirical fact that gases and liquids tend to expand when they get hot. she had developed a fond intimacy with chronic pain and morbid thoughts. both theoretical and practical. Hot and cold. A walk half round Miss Graham’s garden lately knocked her up for several days. Around 1590.

Below that temperature the gas law no longer applies. for example. it appears. Likewise. which meant that the expansion of any suitable gas would serve to make a thermometer and that all gas thermometers ought to yield the same temperature scale. on the understanding that all actual gases departed from this ideal in ways small or large. which one corresponded most closely to the temperature implicit in the ideal gas law. although air could be cooled to much lower temperatures without apparent change. and since no physical object can have zero volume. below which it cannot fall further. very close to the modern value of –273. compared. there was no way to say which temperature was most nearly correct—that is. It was readily apparent. that this wasn’t quite true. The simple rule relating pressure. On cooling.CONUNDRUMS 99 early thermometers at least allowed measurements by different investigators to be recorded. and calibrated against each other. . no one in the late 18th or early 19th century imagined that the temperature could really be reduced down to –270°C or thereabouts without some substantial physical change intervening. but since there was no independent way of measuring temperature. and nothing more. therefore.75°C as a calibration point for a gas-based temperature scale. and volume became known as the ideal gas law. there would seem to be an absolute zero of temperature. A volume of steam. One scale could always be calibrated against another. Their results came together in a simple law: pressure times volume rises in proportion to temperature.75°C. Gas thermometers. In particular. Also implicit in the ideal gas law. the Frenchman Guillaume Amontons estimated that this endpoint corresponded to a temperature of about –248° Celsius. temperature. and in 1847 Thomson’s friend Regnault came up with –272. volume changes linearly with temperature. the volume of any gas decreases. cooled below 100°C at normal atmospheric pressure.15°C. gave slightly different temperature scales depending on which gas was used. During the 18th century many experimenters studied the relationship between pressure and temperature for a given volume of gas. is that temperature cannot fall without limit. for a gas maintained at constant pressure. Regnault and his contemporaries therefore regarded a numerical value such as –272. But this is highly misleading. Absolute zero as a physical concept did not yet exist. though. turns into water. As early as 1699. let alone a negative volume.

100 Degrees Kelvin In Regnault’s lab and elsewhere the air thermometer had become the de facto standard. A corollary of this assumption was that Thomson’s temperature scale had no zero. He knew that the temperature scale defined by an air thermometer came to a halt at –273°C. and it could be calibrated with some consistency against mercury or alcohol thermometers. or some other gas. Thomson could cite no evidence or argument for it. That is. when volume went to zero. In 1848 Thomson wrote a short paper explaining how Carnot’s theory could solve the problem. Thomson defined a temperature scale by asserting that a Carnot cycle operating through a one-degree interval always produced the same amount of work from a given quantity of heat. drop another degree. and so concluded that “infinite cold [on his scale] must correspond to a finite number of degrees of the air-thermometer below zero. whether steam.” But this was no more than an assumption. no rational temperature scale— meaning a temperature that was defined quantitatively in terms of known physical laws and standards—had been devised. Still. his temperature definition was at this point theoretical rather than practical. By asserting that an ideal engine had the same efficiency at all temperatures. Thomson concluded that the vagaries of individual gases and their failure to live up to the ideal gas law prevented any gas-based thermometer from yielding an absolute temperature. and so on. His temperature scale therefore went down to minus infinity. independent of the properties of this or that gas or liquid. Thomson was able to say that “all degrees have the same [mechanical] value. and that this efficiency is the same no matter what the working substance. On the other hand. and so on without limit. Thomson’s noteworthy conceptual innovation here was to define a temperature in purely mechanical terms. Carnot had established that the maximum work any engine can produce from a known quantity of heat can depend only on the upper and lower temperatures between which the engine cycles. get the same work again. air. get some work.” . a certain cycle would yield the same amount of work operating between 100° and 99° as it would operating between 99° and 98°. Drop a degree. since building an ideal Carnot cycle was no more possible than finding an ideal gas.

Thrilled to see at last the source of ideas he had been pondering so long.” By contrast. but Thomson declared that “the conversion of heat (or caloric) into mechanical effect is probably impossible. In setting out these conclusions. “As you have taken so much trouble about this Theory of Carnot’s. D. Thomson acquired a copy of Carnot’s essay on motive power from Lewis Gordon.S. .” Rather helplessly he could only conclude that “much is involved in mystery with reference to these fundamental questions of Natural Philosophy. however. Joule of Manchester. wrote to Thomson urging him to write up his analysis for the Royal Society of Edinburgh. “the value of a degree .” Just weeks after this paper appeared.” who had unarguably converted work into a proportional amount of heat. who had been appointed in 1840 the first professor of engineering at Glasgow.CONUNDRUMS 101 Histories of science sometimes claim that Thomson’s 1848 paper established the existence of absolute zero as a physical concept. Joule believed that the reverse must also happen. certainly undiscovered. Thomson admitted to one nagging anxiety. He persisted with Carnot’s view that the production of mechanical work during a cycle came from the transmission of heat from a higher to a lower temperature. he said. the fact that gas temperature had a zero in the vicinity of –273°C he did not regard as physically meaningful but as a misleading consequence of the way it was defined. and in April 1848. Forbes had to prod him again in November: “I write to remind you of your promise to give us an Abstract of the Motive Power of Heat for the R. Forbes. He still had not resolved the apparent contradiction between Carnot and Joule.” In other words. Thomson’s “Account of Carnot’s Theory . But in a footnote he referred to “Mr. of the air-thermometer depends on the part of the scale in which it is taken. a professor at Edinburgh. he immediately set to turn Carnot’s wordy discussion into a logical and mathematical exposition. He clearly regarded it as a virtue of his temperature scale that all degrees had “equal value” and that it went down to “infinite cold.” Forbes wrote. This is not true. J. He talked of his discoveries to colleagues. . When can we have it?” Delivered in January 1849.” Excited though Thomson may have been. “I think it would be reasonable to expect you to print a little notice of it for the benefit of people in general.

Water expands when it freezes. and had accurately calculated the magnitude of the effect. Then any attempt to make the ice do work would unfreeze it. Even as he was preparing his account of Carnot. and so on) would still move heat from one side to the other but would consume no physical effort because there was no change of temperature. He brought Carnot. The result thrilled William.102 Degrees Kelvin of the Motive Power of Heat. Extracting heat from one side would turn the water into ice but with no mechanical cost. So he imagined an engine operating between two reservoirs of water. but showed how these new ideas could be expressed in the modern language of mathematical reasoning. his cautious and thoughtful brother immediately saw a difficulty. A direct translation of Carnot into English might have had as little effect as his original publication in French. before a new audience and did it in a way his colleagues could grasp. Hence his note to Forbes. He concluded that the melting point of ice must fall slightly when pressure is applied. Thomson’s grasp of this new science evolved in fits and starts. with Numerical Results deduced from Regnault’s Experiments on Steam” played a pivotal historical role. each at precisely 32°F. Thomson here bestowed a new name on this area of study.” A Carnot engine running in reverse moved heat from a lower to a higher temperature. which they both deemed unacceptable. James found the answer. he teasingly mentioned that he had thought up a trick for producing ice “ad libitum without the expenditure of mechanical effect. William’s ice machine would apparently create mechanical effort out of nothing. and the expansion could be made to push a piston and do work. the connection between heat and work. ignored by the French scientists and unknown to the English. explaining that it was the first . But when William tried this out on James Thomson. Writing to Forbes. “Thermodynamics” he called it—the dynamics of heat. no heat leakage. In his Glasgow lectures he always described this finding with delight. then an ideal engine (with frictionless moving parts. It struck Thomson that if both temperatures were the same. If that were the case. Thomson’s interpretation and amplification of Carnot not only rescued the Frenchman’s seminal work from a quarter century of obscurity. Some months later William did experiments to check this prediction and found that James was exactly right. and it could not push a piston.

He fully accepted by now Joule’s numerous demonstrations of the conversion of heat into work. he noted. Thomson. What effect then is produced in place of the mechanical effect which is lost?” Here. a couple of years earlier. is the transference of heat from one body to another at lower temperature. which had hardly any currency and no precise meaning at the time). Somewhat desperately. but either was not troubled by it or left it as a matter for later consideration. In his footnote Thomson seemed to concur—except that in the body of the paper he held fast to the rule that heat could not be transformed into mechanical work.” Heat is not consumed. Thomson tried to harmonize the thermodynamic implications of Carnot’s theory with new measurements . one into another. but he continued to insist on Carnot’s principle that. indeed. In a footnote Thomson illustrated his perplexity. but that energy as a whole cannot be created or destroyed. Thus he was left clinging to two contradictory propositions. had argued that all forms of energy can transform.CONUNDRUMS 103 quantitatively precise prediction to be derived from Carnot’s theory of engines. as he put it.” he asked. Another inconsistency showed up. will conduct heat from a hot body to a cooler one without producing any mechanical work. but plenty of other puzzles remained. A bar of metal. remarkably.” although he would have been hard pressed to find a practical engineer who even understood the question. in suitable circumstances. however. he claimed that this principle had “never been questioned by practical engineers. whereas passage of the same amount of heat through a Carnot engine will produce work. Joule. “what becomes of the mechanical effect which it might produce? Nothing can be lost in the operations of nature—no energy can be destroyed. “the thermal agency by which mechanical effect may be obtained. The failed ice machine didn’t appear in his presentation to the Edinburgh Royal Society. yet he didn’t seem to fully grasp the significance of what he was saying. The disagreement between Carnot and Joule worried him still. let alone had an answer. saw a problem: “When ‘thermal agency’ is thus spent in conducting heat through a solid. Carnot himself had at least indirectly made the same point. Thomson was tiptoeing around a universal law of conservation of energy (using a word.

to 1850. his calculations told him that work should turn into heat with a conversion factor that was not constant but varied with temperature. Moreover. In a Carnot cycle. So impressed was Thomson by Carnot’s conclusions. the most inexplicable flaw of Thomson’s 1849 paper is that he had already seen the answer to this last puzzle but had failed to absorb it. he argued. incidentally. But Thomson would not let go of his interpretation of Carnot and therefore did not give Joule’s proposal the consideration it merited. 1848. but some is converted into work. noted that he not yet seen a copy of Carnot’s original paper and was relying on the expositions by Clapeyron and Thomson. Clausius. Casting his eye down Thomson’s lists of numbers. His solution seems ludicrously simple. In particular. some of the heat passes from hot to cold unchanged. Joule. when the German physicist Rudolf Clausius published his answer to these difficulties. he observed that if one assumed the efficiency of the Carnot cycle to be inversely proportional to temperature. had casually thrown out the resolution. no mathematician. Clausius understood perfectly well the problem. he assumed that the efficiency of a Carnot cycle was the same at all temperatures.” he wrote in his . it is helpful at this point to jump forward a year. This was staring Thomson in the face when he read Joule’s letter of December 1848. As before. but took a very different attitude. “I believe we should not be daunted by these difficulties. not to say obvious. In a letter dated December 9.104 Degrees Kelvin by Regnault on the heat absorption capacity of steam at different temperatures and with Joule’s evidence for the conversion of work into heat at a constant rate. that he feared scrutinizing the assumptions too closely in case the whole elegant piece of reasoning should fall apart. He found it impossible to establish consistency. then everything fell into place. as Joule had long argued. the relative proportions are such as to reproduce Joule’s suggestion that the efficiency of the cycle is inversely proportional to temperature. rather than constant. A few weeks earlier Thomson had written to Joule describing some of his calculations and expressing consternation that the results didn’t seem to match up. Work would convert into heat at a constant rate. To a reader with some knowledge of physics and the benefit of hindsight. To avoid more confusion than we have unwisely waded into already. it would seem.

Still.” This is precisely Joule’s position. it hardly matters by whom. motive power is produced. there is a simultaneous production of an amount of heat exactly proportional to the motive power that is destroyed. Especially in science. or an inability to take a leap in the dark. he could not see beyond the apparent contradiction to the underlying consistency. Thomson is one of several people associated with the birth of this new science. Laws were established.” As Clausius went on to explain. for example in his reconciliation of Faraday’s portrayal of electricity and magnetism with the apparently very different picture of action at a distance. wherever there is destruction of heat. Thomson’s stubbornness in sticking with Carnot’s false principle and doubting Joule—perhaps for no greater reason than that Carnot’s theory became lodged in his brain first—is an indication of a certain lack of flexibility. Thomson was fully capable of seeing this. moreover. he had written that “wherever motive power is destroyed. *** . yet I can find no contradiction with any proved facts. these questions are of no great consequence. Apparently he never looked. In that case he sifted what was important and necessary from what was extraneous and incidental. before his premature death. Conversely. This failure. In notes discovered only much later. It emerged some years later that Carnot himself. had seen that his assumption was wrong. everything is obvious once someone has figured it out. that inhibited Thomson’s scientific imagination. the most influential. Hindsight is dangerous. It is not at all necessary to discard Carnot’s theory entirely. As far as the science of thermodynamics is concerned. of course. reached a decade before Joule began his justly celebrated experiments.CONUNDRUMS 105 1850 paper. stands in contrast to the flexibility Thomson had shown in other cases. in 1832. He could easily have been. “Then too I do not think the difficulties are so serious as Thomson does. probably from cholera. since even though we must make some changes in the usual form of presentation. and reconciled the two views. In the case of Carnot and Joule. Carnot’s general conclusions still held true even when his assumption about the nonconvertibility of heat was amended. after Carnot.

going back once . Thomson’s particular intellectual powers came into their own. the generality of his conclusions was far from evident. But because his reasoning sprang from a highly debatable atomic model. though marred by dubious assumptions and gaps of reasoning. This would be precisely the modern view were it not that Rankine settled on a model of atoms as tiny vortices. like Thomson’s brother James. Rankine reached the same conclusions that Clausius did about the proportion of heat converting into work in a Carnot cycle. Rankine had long been impressed with the idea of heat as a form of motion. these papers represent an inextricable mix of originality and exposition. suffered from a lesser version of the same problem: He had implicitly assumed an ideal gas as the working substance of the engine he analyzed. On the other hand. since both were merely different kinds of motion. Thomson wrote over the next couple of years a series of long papers. With the essentials of thermodynamics now in place. on his own model of a gas as a collection of particles in motion. To some extent he simply took the principles established by Carnot. Joule. As he had done with electricity and magnetism.106 Degrees Kelvin Clausius was not alone in suggesting how to amend Carnot’s argument. Nevertheless. Rankine found it obvious that heat could turn into mechanical work.” Like much of Thomson’s work. having made heat explicitly a kind of atomic motion. learned his science through a mixture of schooling and practical work. or appeared to rely. in fact. and Clausius. He conceived of a gas as a collection of atoms and supposed that heat was nothing but the motion of these atoms. Clausius. and he took up an essentially atomic or molecular view. and set them down in a systematic way. tortuous. William John MacQuorn Rankine was a Glasgow engineer who had. and in places he relied. occasionally confused yet remarkably inventive papers that approached thermodynamics from a different perspective. This was Thomson’s standard way of constructing a theory. so that heat was essentially the rotational energy of these little whirlpools. In 1850 and 1851 he wrote a couple of long. there are many places where he showed a profound sense of logical and mathematical rigor and employed it to derive thermodynamic relations that depend as little as possible on unwarranted assumptions about the nature of heat or the constitution of gases. “On the Dynamical Theory of Heat.

also known as the first law of thermodynamics. it appears. however. it can’t produce work by making some object colder than everything else. that energy cannot be created or destroyed. was that in any interconversion of heat and work. Thomson showed how thermodynamics rested on just two basic principles. capable of working forward or backward. how best to formulate this second principle.CONUNDRUMS 107 again to his reading of Fourier: Apply sound reasoning to empirical knowledge and thereby create a theory that was sweeping and general but at the same time founded on fact. It was still not altogether clear. was that an ideal engine. But this is a spurious association. Mainly. by means of inanimate material agency.” That is. discussion of the efficiency of that conversion became a separate issue. to whom he gave generous credit— “the merit of first establishing the proposition upon correct principles is entirely due to Clausius”—which he instantly took back: “I may be allowed to add. This was not very different from what Clausius had said. Carnot had originally argued from the fact that one could not create work out of nothing. His second principle. With the recognition that an engine converted heat into work. complete or partial. that I have given the demonstration exactly as it occurred to me before I knew that Clausius had either enunciated or demonstrated the proposition. extracted the maximum possible amount of work from a given amount of heat. The first. which makes the principle of maximum efficiency appear to be a consequence of the first principle. credited to Carnot with the essential modification by Clausius. coming about in essence because Carnot stuck with the idea that heat and work were distinct. he wanted to distinguish his own words from those of Clausius. This is conservation of energy. Thomson stated the second principle thus: “It is impossible. the sum of both quantities remained the same.” In his series of papers Thomson also picked up the question he had posed in a footnote the year before about the passage of heat by conduc- . a machine can derive work when temperature flows from hot to cold. to derive mechanical effect from any portion of matter by cooling it below the temperature of the coldest of the surrounding objects. though Thomson seemed to think his statement a little more profound. which he credited to Joule.

and “dynamical” energy. Rankine later introduced the terms “potential” and “actual. First he made a distinction between “statical” energy. but he had apparently not stopped to wonder about the fate of the heat lost.” The meaning of “waste” here was left hanging. Although this essay is sometimes credited with establishing the law of conservation of energy. In an irreversible process.” He wrote this after he had come across a famous essay. such as is possessed by a weight suspended at some height. In his note “On a Universal Tendency. He discussed energy of all forms— energy of motion. In the middle of the 19th century force had not been clearly distinguished from what we now call energy.”7 published five years earlier by Hermann von Helmholtz. through conduction or escaping steam. and therefore ‘wasted. it distributes itself in such a way that no further work can be obtained from it. Carnot had recognized that a reversible engine gives maximum efficiency. but never creation or destruction. which is the energy of motion when the weight falls. “On the Conservation of Force. was “irrevocably lost to man.108 Degrees Kelvin tion from a hot body to a cold one without any concomitant production of work: This heat. 7Über die Erhaltung der Kraft. He also sharpened the distinction between “reversible” and “irreversible” processes.” and Thomson then substituted “kinetic” for actual. gravitational attraction. .’ although not annihilated.” Thomson built on his new understanding to argue that when heat is “wasted” but not lost. The ultimate fate of any system is for the temperature to become the same everywhere. even chemical—and argued that transformation among all these forms is possible. Helmholtz mainly rounded up various arguments and bits of evidence from other authors to show that a universal principle indeed exists. heat. These are the modern terms. in a less efficient and therefore irreversible engine. Conservation of energy was nonetheless Helmholtz’s topic. Thomson introduced here a remarkable number of new ideas and definitions. but Thomson came back to it in 1852 in a short note with the striking title “On a Universal Tendency in Nature to the Dissipation of Mechanical Energy. Thomson’s reading of Helmholtz crystallized a qualitative notion into an absolute rule. he said.

CONUNDRUMS 109 Thomson now explained. unless operations have been. But there were two significant differences. probably including biological and animate ones as well as purely physical and chemical changes. Finally. and his old temperature emerged as simply the logarithm of his new temperature. With his revised understanding of Carnot. saying only that the new scale was “practically more convenient” than the old one. Thomson could see that the efficiency of an ideal engine would approach 100 percent as the temperature dropped to absolute zero. Because reversibility was the ideal. In a note written in 1881 for the publication of the first volume of his collected papers. but having finally understood that the efficiency of a Carnot engine itself varied with temperature. although he didn’t come up with the catchy phrase. heat that moved from high to low temperature without creating work did not signify any overall loss of heat energy.” The idea of the universe running down to a state of enervated uniformity has become known as the “heat death.” a name and idea often attributed to Helmholtz or sometimes Clausius. From this he jumped to a “cosmic” conclusion: “Within a finite period of time past the earth must have been. Tem- . It was a straightforward thing to do. Thomson managed in the course of his several papers on heat and the new thermodynamics to work in a revision of his absolute temperature scale. which are impossible under the laws to which the known operations going on at present in the material world are subject. never realized in practice. and within a finite period of time to come the earth must again be. and a little sneakily. where the old scale descended to minus infinity. He stuck to the essential idea of defining a temperature difference according to the amount of work produced by a Carnot engine. Thomson argued that all natural processes. the revised temperature corresponded to the temperature defined by an ideal gas thermometer and was therefore closely related to the practical temperature scales that laboratory scientists had long used. unfit for the habitation of man as at present constituted. he had to adjust his original argument. the new scale had a zero. represented a loss of potential work from heat. he made light of this adjustment. But Thomson clearly made the point in 1852. First. but the possibility of obtaining work from that heat was gone forever. Second. or are to be performed.

110 Degrees Kelvin peratures below that would make no sense for a variety of reasons. and Thomson in his 1852 account of “Universal Dissipation” had written down an expression that. No one person can truly be credited with its discovery or enunciation. he evidently didn’t . By this time the first law of thermodynamics was understood by all to be the conservation of energy. Entropy can never decrease. In reversible changes. Thomson. on more or less philosophical grounds. had defined a “thermodynamic function” that looks very much like entropy. to an extent that generated controversy and unseemly attacks that swirled about for decades to come. among them that it would then seem possible to get more work out of an engine that was put in as heat. Therefore. whereas James Joule came to the idea through careful measurement and experimental test. But Thomson could not and would not avail himself of any such unwarranted assumption. In the modern picture of heat as the motion of atoms. One of the few undeniable truths about the second law is that the word “entropy” (from a Greek construction meaning “transformation”) was proposed by Clausius. At the time. became a great advocate of Joule. adamant that theoretical proposals without experimental support were next to worthless. Many people made qualitative proposals for such a principle. can readily be identified with entropy. He used only what was known empirically of heat’s properties. in irreversible ones it increases. in 1865. with a bit of adjustment and translation. it is obvious that when all motion has ceased. the entropy of the universe as a whole is always rising. and temperature can go no lower. Rankine in 1850. though. In modern textbooks the second law is a statement about a quantity called entropy. It is a tribute to the power and thoroughness of his reasoning that he could deduce the existence of an absolute zero without any reference to the physical nature of heat itself. Fourier would have been proud. This is a more precise statement of Thomson’s cosmic conclusion of 1852. entropy stays the same. when he bestowed the name on a quantity he had first formulated in 1854. heat is absent. however. except that it was tied to his vortex model of atomic motions. It is thus in his 1852 paper that Thomson truly established the existence of an absolute zero of temperature. The origin of the second law of thermodynamics is murkier still.

though. Subsequently Rankine. He had an exceptional ability to sort and clarify. if any. Thomson. One lesson is that science is harder than it looks. Nevertheless it was abundantly clear that scientific under- 8Writers of physics textbooks almost always stick to a principle of “one idea. A couple of generations of this and history really does become simple! .CONUNDRUMS 111 feel the urge to isolate this new concept and give it a name. They didn’t yet delve into the significance of this quantity. who said what and when. On the other hand. as if he found it convenient for a specific purpose but failed to look beyond. at crucial points he needed a prompt from someone else. and Clausius. Clausius. and his own words suggest that he did not see a separate principle here. In the 1850s thermodynamics was imperfectly understood even by its creators. Rankine. and many of the standard elements of classical thermodynamics trace back to his definitions and arguments. Clausius in the end christened the child and most often gets the credit. not universal processes. in these earlier papers. one inventor” so as to not to distract readers with the messy complications of history. and Thomson all made contributions to the statement of a second law. rather fruitlessly. to resolve confusion and contradiction. and what their fumbling words meant. observed only that in reversible processes a certain quantity stayed the same. then credit goes to Carnot.8 Scholars continue to debate. both in its physical conception and in the mathematical demonstration of its universality. If the second law of thermodynamics is simply the principle that reversibility implies maximum efficiency. for irreversible processes. only an instance of the general prohibition of perpetual motion. he was working with a false assumption about caloric that precludes definition of either a first or a second law of thermodynamics. In any case. it is difficult to avoid the judgment that he didn’t do as much as he might have done. He developed the full theory of Carnot engines only after Clausius had supplied the essential idea that heat was consumed. Of Thomson’s participation. He made use of a quantity that eventually became entropy but did so apparently without seeing the general utility of it. But Carnot was thinking only of engines. not just transferred from one place to another.

and his ailing wife could take the waters. before attending the British Association meeting in Hull. who has worked a great deal in matters con- . I was looking for a physicist. and Thomson took a little comfort in the fact that his wife was even allowed to try the iron waters there. He recounted his fruitless journey to his wife: “From Edinburgh I traveled for a couple of hours in the afternoon through a heavily built-up hilly area. where he could hike and think. nevertheless gave to those subjects a range and coherence they had not previously possessed. Dr Johnson . but he says she is not in a fit state for almost any exercise. One year Thomson told his brother James that “she suffers much after the driving and walking and is quite unable to sit up without much pain in her own room. This is a very big (pop.” They went to Kreuznach a number of times. . dirty. . Like Thomson. She was not at all well. learned physics and mathematics in order to understand the science of perception. Thomson. then began a career in physics proper) as well as an ability to synthesize arguments and evidence into a coherent whole. in order to search out Thomson. It did not make a pleasant impression. though not developed to the same degree. . Prof. horribly noisy and busy. says it will do good notwithstanding the pain & fatigue. swarming with poor. to a limited degree. Thomson often traveled to Bad Kreuznach in the Rhine valley. During his 1855 visit to Germany. His work in electricity and magnetism. unhealthylooking workers.112 Degrees Kelvin standing of heat and work and energy and their interrelationship was no longer a cause of qualitative mystery. . red-haired. whom he had admired since reading his influential 1847 essay on the conservation of energy. moved into physiology. Thomson arranged to meet Hermann von Helmholtz. *** In the summer. . was unquestionably one of a handful of people who had turned ill-defined notions into a new and fundamental discipline of physical science. both as originator and expositor. Helmholtz had come to Britain in 1853 and made a trip to Scotland. Helmholtz had wide-ranging knowledge across all of science (he had begun in medicine. 300000) industrial city. William Thomson. but could be captured in a handful of precise mathematical expressions. to Glasgow. with a variety of ruins.

extended Fourier’s studies of the flow of heat. He had celebrated his 31st birthday just a few weeks earlier. . Helmholtz again recorded his impressions in a letter to his wife: “As he is one of the leading mathematical physicists in Europe. He had established theorems in applied mathematics. but he had gone away to the seaside. appeared before me. so that at times I felt dull-witted beside him. as well as the interaction of magnetism with currents. then came back. . and done as much as anyone to establish the foundations of classical thermodynamics. I might add.CONUNDRUMS 113 cerning the conservation of energy. so I strolled about in the streets until I’d had enough. clarified the relation of electric charges and magnets to the forces they produced. Thomson had been publishing important papers for almost 15 years. No other scientist in Europe at the time could lay claim to such range and depth of achievement. and was not a little astonished when a very youthful. all the scientific greats I know personally. in sharpness. He exceeds. and quickness of mind. . clarity. I expected to find a man somewhat older than myself. exceedingly blonde young man.” Two years later they succeeded in meeting. .” Helmholtz’s surprise is understandable. almost girlish.

“What a mad scheme!” someone said. he reported that signals were now traveling back and forth across the channel. imagining the rope as a sort of immense underwater bell-pull. When the boat reached the French coast. Some “expressed their great astonishment. John Brett. the end of the rope was attached to a wooden box equipped with brass knobs and a dial bearing the letters of the alphabet.” Brett proclaimed. With lead weights attached every 100 yards. that this communication across 21 miles of shallow water represented the first telegraphic 114 O . a small boat trailing an unwieldy black rope from its stern sailed clumsily across the English Channel from Dover to Calais. let alone that number of miles. would declare it was impossible to pull such a line 25 yards. and inquired if paper and print had all made its transit by the wire. and he produced slips of paper on which printed letters could be seen. At Dover the man running this curious operation. After fiddling with the device for a while. “Why a sailor. Locals who had gathered on the beach were skeptical. the rope sank the 30 feet or so to the seabed. or anyone who knew anything about seafaring matters. as only a true Englishman could. attached similar equipment to the other end. 1850.” Others scoffed.3 CABLE n August 23. over such a rough and uneven surface as the bottom of the channel.

an electrical cable. which remarked that “the jest or scheme of yesterday has become the fact of to-day.” Willoughby Smith. had sent a short note to the Philosophical Magazine recounting the material’s excellent qualities for the laboratory electrician. Michael Faraday. To assemble the hundred-yard lengths into 25 miles of cable. resilient yet still flexible when cold. allowed that “some few. any electrical current traveling down the wire would conduct away into the watery deep. After only a few hours.1 Once that happened. Charles Bright. which is why Brett had chosen it to insulate his underwater telegraph cable. . Whether Brett’s first cross-channel cable ever worked at all is debatable. Still. Hundred-yard lengths of copper had been wrapped in strips of gutta percha. . and made a good electrical insulator. Russell (1866. the operators at Dover wondered at the time if their colleagues on the French side had overindulged in celebratory champagne. another telegraph engineer. letters appeared here and there . but intelligible words were conspicuous by their absence. to say the least. or else rocks chafing at it wore through the gutta percha and allowed seawater to reach the copper wire inside. It was soft and moldable when warm. It may be that pieces of the discarded cable were hooked up later.” while the Spectator presciently observed that in the future “a man in London might sign a (2002) repeats an anecdote from the journalist W. Brett’s transient claim seemed momentous enough to the London Times. given some samples of gutta percha in 1848. According to him. of exceedingly amateur design. p.CABLE 115 link “from one continent to another. more or less incoherent. suggested in his memoir that the letters allegedly received were no more than random firings of the equipment. However. Brett himself offers no such tale. in his 1898 history of submarine telegraphy. H. a gummy tree sap discovered a few years earlier in Malaysia. of course. Faraday used it for plugs and supports and insulating sheets in his various experiments. giving rise to fishy stories. It also resisted water. 1Gordon . thinking he had found a new kind of gold-bearing seaweed.” The rope was. 4) that the 1850 cable failed because a fisherman pulled it up and cut out a section. This cable was not robust. the exposed ends of the copper wires were twisted together. and globs of warm gutta percha were applied to the joints and squeezed crudely into shape with a wooden press. it broke somewhere.

with a proposal both outlandish and grandiose.” Brett’s cable was not the first underwater telegraph. until a chunk of ice in the river severed it. Wales. His cable had two cotton-covered copper wires wrapped in rubber. and in 1848 Werner Siemens ran a cable across the harbor at Kiel. wrapped in hemp. His cable had several copper strands twisted together. For the sake of imperial might. John Brett sent a telegram to Sir Robert Peel. Fired by a vision of technical innovation allied to patriotism. but it was the first of any length. Dr. the British prime minister. to a lighthouse on the shore. In 1845. as news of these ventures and their mixed success was getting about. the government must surely support his endeavors. in return for financial support and some guarantees of exclusivity. Brett offered his technical abilities to his country. Petersburg. Siemens made the important invention of a press that molded warm gutta percha around a metal wire in a continuous run. Then gutta percha came on the scene. In the United States in 1842 Samuel Morse. in the space of an hour or so. at the most distant parts of the United Kingdom or of the Colonies.116 Degrees Kelvin bill in Calcutta. In 1838 a Colonel Pasley had experimented at the Chatham docks in London with a wire wrapped in tarred rope. from Fort Lee to New York City. The following year Ezra Cornell. . and then soaked in boiled tar. whose 1837 electromagnetic telegraph and the code that he also devised became standards of the new technology. transmitted signals across New York Harbor. or any other place. founder of the university. laid a line 12 miles across the Hudson. transmit it for endorsement to St. The global might of the British Empire would surely come to depend on this technology and profit from it. Charles Wheatstone. It worked for a few months.” The advantages to a great and growing colonial power would be immense. and receive cash for it on authority in Cairo. an English scientist who also made crucial contributions to telegraphy. in northern Germany. At the behest of the East India Company. almost at the same instant of time. he described a combination of “oceanic and subterranean inland electric telegraphs” by means of which “any communication may be instantly transmitted from London. further protected by a lead sheath. William O’Shaughnessy trailed wires across the Hooghly River the following year. signaled in 1844 from a boat in Swansea Bay. and delivered in a printed form. producing seamless insulation.

As civil servants they were extremely adept. The French showed a hint of interest. which mainly purports to show how many important ideas were originally his and how unfairly history had already treated him by 1858. not technical questions of sending and receiving messages. The Admiralty demurred on the grounds that they were not in a position to make business or financial arrangements. however. Nevertheless. In a final stroke of bureaucratic genius. reading the various irresistible explanations offered by civil servants and politicians of why they could not possibly take action on Brett’s proposal. one begins to wonder how the British Empire ever spread much beyond the Chatham docks. provided there was no expense to Her Majesty’s government and provided too that Brett would agree to cut the cable at once if their Lordships. when he published his memoir in London.CABLE 117 Her Majesty’s government did no such thing. while John. he would surely need to obtain permission from the Commissioners of Woods and Forests. The classically educated mandarins inhabiting Whitehall’s upper reaches were singularly uninterested in feats of untested technological novelty. The Admiralty said it had no particular objection. let alone the global network he imagined. John Brett and his brother Jacob were woefully underprepared. In the end Brett gave up on London and made a deal with the French government. that was something the Treasury would have to deal with. . Jacob had some technical experience. Might this be a question for the Foreign Office to decide? But the FO’s remit was diplomacy and statesmanship. a former antiques dealer. and Brett then returned to the Admiralty for permission to land a Frenchsponsored cable on British soil. Rebuffed by one department after another. Peel told Brett to try the Admiralty. they advised Brett that if he wished to attach an electrical cable somewhere along the lovely southern coast of England. which had authority over transoceanic communication. Policy initiatives were not the Treasury’s bailiwick. and repulsed Brett’s enquires by means of a practiced game of departmental handoff. Brett made overtures to the French government with the more modest suggestion of a telegraphic link across the English Channel. however. should so command. For his channel connection. Brett’s correspondence with various offices of the British government appears in his book Brett’s Submarine Telegraph. for whatever reason might in the future occur to their wise heads.

These machines.118 Degrees Kelvin supplied entrepreneurial talents. except that their boat drifted off course. House of Vermont. the second went to the opposite extreme. It consisted of four copper wires individually insulated with strips of gutta percha. They renewed in 1849 with the same stipulation that they must demonstrate the feasibility of their plan within a year. Brett laid a second cross-channel cable in September 1851. and complete the job. The cable was almost two inches across and weighed a massive seven tons per mile. The 1850 cable barely beat the deadline. lapsed after a year because they hadn’t done anything. Royal E. so that Brett’s crew ran out of cable a mile from the French coast. similarly unwieldy. they had inevitably to deal with the uncertainties and pure ignorance implicit in any new technology. remarks a little testily that their endeavors were held back by his brother Jacob’s infatuation with a telegraphic letter-printing machine devised by Mr. signed in 1847. the whole thing then being wound about with 10 galvanized iron wires for strength and protection. With renewed financial backing. like the teletype machines of a few decades ago. had to receive a string of pulses down the telegraph wire in . Their first contract. Charles Wheatstone invented a similar device. since no one knew how deep the water was in its middle sections. that assembly being wrapped and wound with tarred yarn. Although the Bretts had remarkable entrepreneurial energy. applied cold (evidently they hadn’t heard of the Siemens machine for applying insulation). Laying the cable proved fairly easy. printed messages on strips of paper in capital letters. off Cap Gris Nez. These conductors were then twisted together with strands of tarred Russian hemp. They improvised by filling in the gap with a length of the old wire but a month later managed to pick up the cable at the join. That instrument. splice in an additional length of the new strengthened line. Where the first wire had been ridiculously flimsy. The Irish Sea at first proved too rough and deep for cabling. the brothers Brett formed the European and American Telegraph Company and made a creditable attempt to corner the market on this new business. but they laid a 70-mile link from Dover to Ostend in 1853 and then began to attack the Mediterranean—an adventurous project. John Brett. Building on this success. equipped with a rotating circular dial inscribed with the letters of the alphabet. in his book.

600 fathoms deep. Then the weather turned bad. hung on desperately to the heavy cable end.CABLE 119 order to know at which letter to stop and stamp out a mark. and which causes him to become an apostle of the system. but at the time it arrived like a godsend. Sailing to their utmost. pitching and rolling. But as they moved into waters deeper than anything they had experienced thus far. In August 1856 Brett and his crew loaded up with cable and sailed south in perfect weather. That was not such a silly mistake as it might seem. this greater hanging weight pulls the cable from the ship uncontrollably fast. across water up to 1. Brett had added a brake to the drum that paid out the cable. A more serious difficulty showed up four years later when he tried to lay a connection from Sardinia to the north coast of Africa. as Brett had found on the 1852 cross-channel project. and the pride which fills everyone who has learned to use it. Samuel Morse’s famous code stands as an innovation of middling genius. Keeping a vessel on course while it was dropping cable off the stern was not easy. More mundanely.” Jacob Brett’s devotion to the letter-printing device of Mr. they lashed and buoyed the cable to keep the remainder from spilling into the sea and sent a request for additional cable back along the cable they had already laid. it seems so elementary. House represented years of wasted time. After . their cable unreeled over the stern with alarming and increasing speed. for precisely this reason. little wind. We take this for granted nowadays. they found themselves 13 miles from the African shore with 12 miles of cable on board. They were both slow and unreliable. the greater the length of unsupported cable that dangles from the ship. and he devised a system for turning bursts of dots and dashes into the letters of the alphabet in an economical way. He saw how to get two kinds of intelligible signal—dots and dashes—down a telegraph. and a calm sea. have in a short time ousted all dial and older letter-printing apparatus. Squalls blew up and the ship. the relative facility of acquiring the alphabet. But in these deep waters they could barely restrain the cable. with clear sky. The deeper the water. As Werner Siemens put it: “The simplicity of Morse’s apparatus. The explanation is simple. In earlier and easier Mediterranean expeditions. Desperately. This was a distance of some 150 miles. John Brett displayed a habit of packing not quite enough cable on his early expeditions.

Gisborne spent years hacking through the wilderness of Newfoundland in preparation for a practical attempt. it was Brett whom he first contacted.120 Degrees Kelvin five days their ordeal came to an abrupt end. a New York entrepreneur and financier by the name of Cyrus West Field. but his Canadian ventures proved far more costly than he had imagined. and to resolve those Field needed the best scientific advice he could find. and would speedily be forwarded to us. with casual and quite unfounded confidence that the project would present no new difficulties beyond the obvious logistical ones. and by the mid-1850s he was on the verge of bankruptcy. He first proposed a route that included a way station in Iceland. Chafing against the stern of the ship. Despite such setbacks. His savior was not Brett but a newcomer to the cabling business. a globe-trotting Englishman then resident in Canada.000 miles to the west coast of Ireland. he surely knew of the blossoming of telegraphy. into a new industry that rapidly altered .S. In the end both Gisborne and Brett faded from their pioneering roles. and financial resources that saw the Atlantic telegraph project through to a successful conclusion. and it was Field’s stamina. both overland and undersea. to inform us that the extra cable was in progress. From there it was less than 2. The idea of a transatlantic cable was not unique to Gisborne. Morse had written in August 1843 to the secretary of the U. When Frederick Gisborne. But money was not the only necessity. Treasury making just that proposal. But Morse simply made a suggestion. the cable finally broke on August 19. imagination. John Brett established himself for a time as the leading figure in submarine cabling. Gisborne was struggling to overcome enormous difficulties of geography and climate in order to lay a mix of overland and underwater cables connecting the east coast of the United States to the tip of Newfoundland. began to think seriously of an underwater telegraph across the Atlantic Ocean. connecting the New World to the Old. Scientific problems also stood in the way. *** Though William Thomson was never as keen a student of current affairs as his father had been. “not ten minutes after receiving a telegraphic reply through it from London.” as Brett ruefully recorded.

why it would pass through copper or iron but not through tar or cotton or gutta percha—these scientific arcana mattered not in the least to inventors such as Morse. By this time there were enough telegraph lines around Britain and the continent that it was possible to set up test circuits in which signals traveled along hundreds or even thousands of miles of wire in the air. Faraday immediately supplied a qualitative explanation. Still. Airy asked a young telegraph engineer. Instead of an instantaneous sharp pulse. who had conceived a plan to link the London and Paris observatories by telegraph so as to allow simultaneous observations from both places. Water. Josiah Latimer Clark. That was the case. until the advent of underwater cables. suffered a small but detectable delay in transmission. still less to the money men Brett and Field. and to a lesser extent underground ones. Any signal passing down a wire creates an electrical disturbance in its vicinity.CABLE 121 the pace of ordinary life. One day in early 1854 Clark invited the renowned Michael Faraday to visit his cable works and observe some experiments. moreover. the astronomer royal. It was. suffered from a troubling degree of fuzziness. it seemed) at the other. to look into the problem. the first commercial technology that depended on electricity. A battery applied at one end of a wire produced a detectable signal (instantaneously. unlike dry . These difficulties alarmed George Airy. it was some time before he first began to think critically about telegraphy as an exercise in the theory and application of electricity. Overland telegraphy would not have fascinated him. one of the many subjects in which Thomson held acknowledged expertise.500-mile circuit of overland cable looping around the country. at least. and more obviously in the 1853 Dover-Ostend and later Irish cables. and underwater. He had coiled 100 miles of cable in a tank full of water and demonstrated to Faraday that it transmitted signals more slowly and less clearly than a 1. The fundamental nature of that signal. underground. Signals transmitted through the 1851 Dover-Calais cable. Telegraphy was a simple means of communication making use of an utterly mysterious physical phenomenon. Experiments showed that underwater cables. sometimes to the point that operators couldn’t be sure whether they had registered a real signal or not. What should have been clear and unambiguous blips came through distorted and blurred. how it moved. operators would see a signal both delayed and smeared out.

An underwater cable. but Faraday. Thomson was by then at Largs. the ocean. The two metal layers. Thomson had to rush away to catch a steamer to Glasgow and handed the young man off to his friend George Stokes. had a conducting core surrounded by a layer of insulation. in his usual way. the inner layer could be charged with static electricity.122 Degrees Kelvin air. perceived the essential physics of the matter without being able to calculate anything. Nevertheless. where he also compared a long insulated conductor. has significant electrical conductivity. In essence. immersed in water. couldn’t help and so passed the problem back to Thomson in a letter dated October 16. 1854. He wanted to ask an electrical question. Stokes. no electrical expert.000 miles or more across the Atlantic Ocean must be questionable. He had a couple of weeks remaining before the Glasgow session began and spent the time catching up with correspondence but also. a young man had introduced himself to Thomson as the son of the Dublin mathematician William Rowan Hamilton. to the familiar laboratory device known as a Leyden jar. which the jar would then retain. Faraday observed. Faraday told Clark. on the Ayrshire coast. as he told Stokes. separated by glass insulation. “devoting myself as much as possible to the open . if poorly understood electrical phenomena were already causing trouble on the 70-mile cable from England to Holland. At the close of the 1854 British Association meeting in Liverpool. a capacitor. Such a cable did not simply conduct electricity but stored it too. the prospects for a link of 2. A Leyden jar (named after the Dutch city where it was invented) was a glass vessel lined inside and out with separate layers of metal foil. With the external layer grounded. acted as a storage device for electric charge—in modern parlance. Its characteristics were therefore quite different from those of a plain wire. The problem finally came to Thomson’s attention in a roundabout way. a signal passing through a submerged wire has to work harder to get from one place to another—hence the delay and degradation in the signal. which was surrounded in turn by an earthed conducting body. and an electrical disturbance passing through it creates local electric currents that act as a kind of inertia or brake on the primary signal. The question concerned Faraday’s analysis of undersea cables. Faraday published his analysis of the problem in the Philosophical Magazine.

added further details. There had to be a copper conductor down the middle.” he wrote. notably some calculations of the feasibility of a telegraphic connection to America. A second letter. but it is possible it may be profitable. Thomson explained that it was Rankine.” He did not have access to the Philosophical Magazine. the medical professor). nor did it occur to him that his findings might have practical not to say commercial importance. On December 1. “In taking up your letter this morning to answer it. made watertight with tar and pitch and hemp and rope or whatever else came . Through November he exchanged further letters with Stokes. and done simply to satisfy his curiosity about a physical phenomenon that was new to him. carried out by Thomson with his customary speed and brilliance. as no one had done before. This was an exercise in applied science. working out some additional wrinkles. on the subject. he wrote asking Stokes to keep quiet about the contents of his previous letters because he had applied for a patent on “the remedy for the anticipated difficulty in telegraphic communication to America. no one had designed an underwater cable except in a crude way. Thomson’s innocence ended abruptly. so could only infer Faraday’s arguments from Stokes’s brief account of them.” Joining in this application were William Rankine (whom Thomson knew from his work in thermodynamics) and John Thomson (not William’s deceased brother John. “I find that the whole may be worked out definitely as follows. the theory of the transmission of a pulse of electricity down an insulated underwater cable.” In several pages of calculations Thomson worked out. Stokes helped by coming up with a simpler way to obtain solutions to the fundamental equation of telegraphy that Thomson had worked out. Writing to his brother James the following January. the experienced professional engineer. 1854. I am not very hopeful of making anything of it.CABLE 123 air & the sea. In a few days I expect it will be secured to us: in the meantime don’t say even as much as I have said to you.” Before Thomson’s theoretical analysis. But that was all he needed. surrounded with gutta percha for insulation. two days later. but a son of the other William Thomson. obviously. who had “suggested the plan of taking a patent. wh I had no idea of at first. He did not immediately feel any great urge to polish his analysis into a scientific paper.

one could hardly countenance 2. was directly analogous to heat migrating along a metal bar. In other words. The consequence. Thomson obtained the curious result that the arrival time of this changing signal. the greater the cable’s capacitance. was that a sharp pulse applied at one end spread out. though. but the thicker the insulation. he argued. an electrical pulse traveling down an insulated underwater wire had to charge up the cable as it went. as it moved along. into a rolling wave of increasing length. Thomson argued. His solution once again owed a good deal to his youthful reading of Fourier. quaintly called the “distinctness of the utterance. In effect. Although the front of the pulse moved at a constant rate. groping for technical language to describe the clarity of the signal. and finished off with some sort of iron binding for strength and protection. Thomson modeled such a cable as a combination of resistance and capacitance. the crest of the following wave lagged farther behind. the farther it went. Thomson showed. The thicker the wire. with the magnitude of these factors depending on the construction of the cable.124 Degrees Kelvin to hand. signals could be sent and received across the Atlantic.” would remain the same. He reproduced with little modification the reasoning he had worked out within a few hours of reading the letter from Stokes. Alternatively if the diameter of both the conductor and the insulation of a cable were increased in proportion to its total length. then the signal delay and what Thomson. if measured by the moment the crest of the wave reached the far end. If a cable 100 miles long was an inch or two in diameter and weighed a ton or two per mile. An electric pulse moving down a wire against both resistance and capacitance. Collectively. increased with the square of the distance traveled. that with a strong enough signal and sufficient patience and understanding on the part of the operators. This seemed at first a discouraging discovery. Thomson published his paper “On the Theory of the Electric Telegraph” in the Proceedings of the Royal Society for May 1855. the signal had no fixed speed. these assertions became known as the law of squares in telegraph theory.000 miles of cable measuring a foot and a half across. though at a limited rate compared to what had been achieved over the modest subocean distances traversed thus far. In later papers he found an alternative analogy: He likened the pulse to a surge of water . the less the resistance.

This he called his “peristaltic” model of signal transmission. did not hear this rebuttal but read about it soon after in the Athenaeum. both as to what he did and whether he understood what he was doing. Whitehouse heard Thomson announce the law of squares. that Thomson had difficulty responding. which he claimed contradicted this supposed law. Thomson. a London magazine. What mattered. but the builders of steam engines mostly worried about cracked cylinders and poor insulation. The pioneers of telegraphy were less scientifically aware still and even those who pretended to a little knowledge of electricity found Thomson’s broadranging science and powerful mathematics beyond them. At the BA the following year he recounted his own tests of signal transmission through cables of various lengths. in Thomson’s view. not to worry about questions of “metaphysics. with others. had worked out the fundamentals of thermodynamics.” Whitehouse’s account from the BA meeting itself was so confused. which reported that Whitehouse “has been able to show most convincingly that the law of the squares is not the law which governs the transmission of signals in submarine circuits. What electricity was. One who failed to understand his reasoning but disputed his findings anyway was the splendidly named Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse. in some essential way that would satisfy continental adherents of la physique or devotees of German Naturphilosophie. was to find a solution to the problem at hand. It indicated the universality of his reasoning. the application of science to technology had barely begun. Thomson. Thomson was never happier than when he found analogies between one problem and another. was of no consequence. Attending the British Association meeting in 1855. in Glasgow.CABLE 125 passing down a rubbery pipe that expanded in response to increased pressure. in Germany with his invalid wife. a successful physician in Brighton who had caught the telegraphy bug and begun experimenting with cables and electricity not long before Thomson came across the subject. It maintained his strategy of modeling phenomena from empirical and observational laws. rather than striving for some fundamental a priori theory that would yield results as mathematical theorems.” *** Even in the middle of the 19th century. .

implying that ivory-tower academics shouldn’t meddle in the affairs of practical men: “And what. to which Thomson wrote a thorough rebuttal. Without describing in any detail what exactly he measured. Whitehouse may or may not have understood that an underground cable. and he concluded with an airy dismissal of Thomson’s so-called theory of the telegraph. represented an intermediate case between a cable in dry air and one immersed in water. This boded well for the Atlantic project. presumably an underground one. he said. not to operate according to some theoretical ideal. He explained that the law of squares applied to uniform tests.126 Degrees Kelvin Whitehouse had tested three cables.020 miles. surrounded by damp earth. wherein precisely the same signal was applied to a cable. saying without elaboration that he thought Whitehouse’s results were consistent with the law of squares. that gave him a total of 1. This was a fair point. and I can only regard it as a fiction of the schools. I may be asked. not the square of the length. and on the nature of the test applied at the other extremity” and argued that the practical issue was to get a useful signal down the wire. despite any appearance to the contrary. Whitehouse then sent Thomson a more detailed account of his tests. Whitehouse seized on Thomson’s admission that the applicability of the law of squares “depends on the nature of the electric operation performed at one end of the wire.” which he could join to make a cable of 166 or 249 miles in total length. but misapplied here. Responding again in the Athenaeum. is the general conclusion to be drawn as the result of this investigation of the law of squares applied to submarine circuits? In all honesty. each 83 miles long. that I believe nature knows no such application of that law. but not submerged. Although Whitehouse clearly didn’t under- . and the time of maximum response at the other end was recorded.” Thomson replied briefly at first. I am bound to answer. good and true under other circumstances. he claimed the transmission time was proportional to the length of the cables he tested. He also had access to a longer cable. a forced and violent adaptation of a principle in Physics. Whitehouse had not arranged for a constant input and timed his detection at the other end as soon as he saw something. “coiled in a large tank in full contact with moist earth. Later he remarked without explanation that he thought a cable wrapped in iron could be regarded as identical to one underwater.

which would eventually allow a comprehensive treatment of signal transmission. That same year. Cyrus Field was just the man not to do this. He had that power of spontaneous adaptability essential to business success. He began with a handful of basic empirical propositions about electricity.” One does not have to be a deep philosopher to perceive the narrowness of this view. . Field had worked his way up from junior clerk in a New York dry goods store to become the preeminent paper merchant in the city before he was 30 years old. is merely a combination of established truths. he came to England on one of what would eventually total 56 transatlantic voyages. “like every theory. For the time being. Thomson’s venture into telegraphy gave at least a preliminary explanation for the unexpected behavior of submarine cables and showed that engineers would ignore the arcane lessons of natural philosophy at their peril. the exchange between Thomson and Whitehouse concluded with protestations of good will on both sides and acknowledgment by both that anyone proposing to build an Atlantic cable would be wise to test and investigate thoroughly before proceeding with so ambitious and expensive a project. There must be more to theorizing than simply combining old knowledge in new ways. Anticipating the modern cliché. each costing almost two weeks of his life. 1856. Born in Stockbridge. else where would new ideas come from? There was also the problem that the “established truths” of electricity known to science at that time were far from complete. had serious flaws. Thomson’s blithe certainty in his analysis seems at best like overconfidence. In his first reply to Whitehouse he had expressed his confidence in this approach by saying that his theory. it was also true that Thomson had not fully thought through the implications of his theory for practical telegraphy. Massachusetts. It was not for another decade that a full theory of electricity and magnetism came into being. His analysis of the telegraph illuminated both the strengths and the weaknesses of Thomson’s intellectual style. at worst an indication of a blindness to or incuriosity about the evolving nature of scientific understanding. in 1819. and proceeded to write down a differential equation that captured the desired solution. On the other hand.CABLE 127 stand Thomson’s theorizing. as it turned out. Thomson’s telegraph theory. used them to formulate a simple model of the properties of an insulated submarine cable.

Dyeing was an uncertain process and batches came out in unpredictable hues. he encountered a level of industrialization and technological development he hadn’t seen before and saw the energy and affluence that both produced it and derived from it. he wrote to his privileged customers to tell them of their unexpected opportunity to obtain a quantity of “extra blue” paper that had come his way. Field rose to the challenge. Quixotically he then left his paper business in the hands of colleagues. Field contacted Morse. By the late 1840s Field was selling up to $500. Now here was a project momentous enough for Cyrus Field. Field. with Brett’s assistance. Lawrence and . he called it “salmon” and marketed it at a premium. and returned to New York in 1854 with enormous wealth and ambition but no settled purpose. By 1852 he was one of the 30 richest men in New York. who assured him blithely that no serious technical problems stood in the way of an Atlantic cable. had failed to complete their planned telegraph line from New York City to St. his brother Matthew had teamed up a couple of years earlier with Frederick Gisborne.128 Degrees Kelvin he saw opportunity in every problem. Meanwhile.000 miles). raised money.000 worth of paper a year. set off on an unhappy expedition to South America with the painter Frederic Church. When he took delivery of a parcel of red paper that was a little paler than it should have been. He specialized in high-quality papers for an upmarket clientele. The only commercial manufacturers of undersea cable were in Britain. So far they had spent huge amounts of money tackling the intractable and dangerous Canadian wilderness. who at that time could claim the greatest success and expertise in the laying of submarine cables. avoiding the low-margin trade in newsprint. the Newfoundland telegraph engineer. worth more than $250. and were piling up debt. When the blue came out a little darker than usual. and in 1855 sailed for England to meet John Brett. but he began to tire of business and took off with his wife on a tour of Europe. There. Cyrus Field took over the project. especially in London.000. He saw an interest in colored paper and urged his suppliers to see what they could come up with. John’s (a distance of more than 1. formed a consortium. While Matthew Field and Gisborne toiled away in the distant wastes of eastern Canada. ordered a quantity of cable for the marine segments of the Newfoundland cable (across the St.

000 each. with Brett as president. it was by no means clear that electrical science was thus far well enough advanced to be useful. S. sold in less than two weeks. Thomson was 32. The appointment of Whitehouse was fateful but by no means foolish. moreover. had visited in England in 1856.CABLE 129 from Cape Breton to Newfoundland itself ). which included Thomson. But with Field in charge. Thomson. had practical experience in cabling and electrical testing. who at only 23 had already overseen the laying of a cable from England to Ireland. Elliott. He obtained conflicting advice from Whitehouse. In a hectic trip lasting several months. Samuel Morse. Field ordered 2. Field tried but largely failed to raise money in New York and in 1856 sailed for England again. In October he formed the Atlantic Telegraph Company. By the following summer the American end of the Atlantic cable project was close to completion. and Faraday about the delay and distortion inherent in undersea transmission.75 million in capitalization. at a cost exceeding $1 million. which Field. five years younger than Field. Thomson had only just begun his foray into applied science. Among the subscribers was William Thackeray. and Whitehouse (who now gave up his Brighton medical practice altogether) as chief electrician. where he tested long cables in collaboration with Whitehouse and pronounced both the man and the results satisfactory. R. and in his career as a physician had acquired business sense. Whitehouse was 40. Newall and Glass. With the selling of the shares Field also established an unpaid board of directors. who had met William Thomson and his “nice wife” some years earlier. it was that cable design ought to be thoroughly tested before the great adventure began. This represented $1.500 miles of insulated copper wire from the London Gutta-Percha Company. there was no time. The transatlantic link itself would cost considerably more than that. If Whitehouse and Thomson agreed on one thing. The Atlantic Telegraph Company issued 350 shares at £1. Bright as chief engineer. with spiral-wound iron sheathing to be supplied by two other companies. himself as vice-president. He wanted to order cable . racing around the country giving inspirational speeches in all the big industrial cities. he consulted Brett and his assistant Charles Bright. and though he had made the general point the cable design ought to be guided by scientific principles.

Field delivered a message from President Buchanan. It was a brief trip. with speeches and toasts and festivities. so that progress reports could travel down the cable as it was laid. Whitehouse had planned to sail on the Niagara to oversee communications to shore. Niagara and H. if all went well. where it was hooked up to the telegrapher’s office. but Whitehouse. The departure of the ships was a gala occasion.S. the U. August 9. interior structures torn out to create vast holding tanks. then sail for their respective home shores. With armaments removed. Niagara and Agamemnon lay at anchor a mile or two out from Valentia Bay in the southwest corner of Ireland. with his more optimistic view of signal transmission. and as the Niagara rose and fell the threat of losing the . The ship returned and tried again. Agamemnon.S. inviting Queen Victoria to send the cable’s first message to him.130 Degrees Kelvin now. The crew struggled constantly with the clumsy system for letting the cable go from the stern of the ship. and Field had persuaded the U.S. The cable might then be laid in only a week. insisted on starting from Ireland. On August 5 a small ship brought one cable end ashore. The crude device for maintaining even tension proved hopelessly inadequate. Field needed both. Early in August 1857.S. Thomson embarked on a study of the quality of copper supplied by several British foundries and to his alarm found that the electrical resistance of copper wire of the same alleged gauge and purity varied in some cases by more than a factor of two. But it was the middle of 1857 when he discovered this. Thomson didn’t like the design adopted (he thought the copper core too thin). but he either fell ill or suffered an attack of the nerves. because no single ship was large enough to carry 2. By noon on Sunday. Bright had argued that the ships should meet in mid-Atlantic. saw no problem. for a voyage the following summer.500 miles of cable. notably Whitehouse. But others. On his own initiative. The Niagara steamed about four miles out. and Thomson went in his place. Cable for the first attempt had already been made. when the cable got tangled in the paying-out machinery and broke. and with systems of drums and brakes and pulleys mounted on the stern. the two vessels became the world’s first ocean-going cabling ships. splice their cable ends together.M. and British governments to lend him two large ships. signals were coming to shore from almost 100 miles away.

believed that improvements in the paying-out system would solve all their problems. (Gutta percha dried out and became brittle under prolonged exposure to light. Later in the day (at a time. Niagara and Agamemnon sailed back to Plymouth. he said he “was surprised to find differences between different specimens so great as most materially to affect their value in the electrical operations for which they are designed” and argued “how important it is to shareholders in submarine telegraph companies that only the best copper wire should be . they reckoned.800 miles—about 10 percent more than the distance from Ireland to Newfoundland. when he was away from the machinery). This first attempt at the great project. but that was not a sufficient margin of error. and the crew had endless difficulty braking the drum enough to stop the cable from reeling out but not so much as to snap it. In any case Thomson’s interest lay mainly in electrical questions. On Tuesday the signal through the cable ceased. who adapted existing ideas and designs to the task of cabling. *** Field. The cable itself proved adequate. Field was quick to assert. Back at Valentia the engineers tallied the remaining length of cable. Thomson contributed some thoughts to the design of tensioning and braking equipment. but Field put such matters in the hands of William Everett.CABLE 131 wire was ever present. Just over 1. They needed better payingout machinery. the directors quickly decided to abandon the attempt but not before agreeing to try again next year. In his paper on the quality of commercial copper. Next year would be different. the weight of cable hanging from the stern became increasingly unmanageable. chief engineer of the Niagara. With the enthralled crowds of a few days earlier now vanished. an illtimed application of the brake as the ship rose on a swell put the strain on the cable past breaking point—and break it did. had been far from ignominious. in which he did not share at all Whitehouse’s complacency. As the ship sailed into deeper water. concurring with Bright and the other engineers. Bright helpfully noted in his memoir. About 300 miles of cable dropped uselessly to the seafloor. where the cable was off-loaded into covered tanks of water for storage through the winter.) Another 600 miles of cable was ordered.

at least in Thomson’s own account. was the first response. The board then asked what price the company would charge to conform to the new terms: £42 per mile instead of £40. came the answer. Still. although such thinking was not yet familiar to practical engineers. At Thomson’s insistence. Thomson then helped set up a testing station at the factory so that the quality of the wire could be constantly monitored. and was far more sensitive than the heavy devices found in telegraphy offices. a laboratory instrument for detecting small currents. that practical men came thoroughly to believe in the reality of the differences of conductivity in the different specimens of copper wire. the board added a clause to its contract with the Gutta-Percha Company demanding an insulated wire of verified high conductivity.” He had evidently grasped by this time that the way to convince businessmen of the gravity of a scientific problem was to show that it would cost money if not solved. Thomson at first imagined he would simply take apart one of . Thomson began to think of detecting the signal with a galvanometer. it took much stubbornness and persistence on his part to bring the directors around to his point of view. The energy to move the magnet ultimately came from the current—a point that derived ultimately from Joule’s experiments on the energy carried by electricity. all supposed good and supplied for use in submarine cables.” A second matter on which Whitehouse was complacent and Thomson nervous was that signaling across the Atlantic placed new demands on the sensitivity of the receiver. from the letter-printing machines of Wheatstone and House to the superior Morse receiver. The principle of a galvanometer was the same—a coil produced a force on a magnet attached to a pointer—but a good one was carefully made and well balanced.132 Degrees Kelvin admitted for their use. which the board agreed to. As he later commented. In standard telegraphy equipment. “It was not until practical testing to secure high conductivity had been commenced in the factory. Thomson’s determination on this point thus led to the first scientifically informed quality control system for the manufacture of a commercial product. No can do. creating a magnetic field. At the end of 1856 he wrote to Helmholtz asking for details of an instrument he had designed. with lightweight components. which attracted or repelled an adjacent permanent magnet. a current ran through a coil.

and obvious enthusiasm for the project contrasted with the increasing recalcitrance of Whitehouse. as he dubbed it. both mechanically and electrically. Dissension simmered among the officers and directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company. leaving the field to Thomson and his new galvanometer.CABLE 133 Helmholtz’s galvanometers and see what he could do to reduce the mass of the moving parts. but by the time the Agamemnon and Niagara returned to Plymouth to prepare for the transatlantic voyage. Whitehouse was firmly ensconced in the electrician’s office and doing his utmost to resist Thomson’s appeals for better equipment and more testing. At the end of May the Agamemnon set course for the Bay of Biscay to conduct deep-water tests of the new paying-out machinery. The mirror galvanometer.) In April he went to Plymouth to test the cable stored there and got three letters per second through the entire length—some 2.) A current passing through the nearby coil created a field that twisted the magnet one way or another. But in a stroke of inventive brilliance he saw how he could reduce the mass of one moving part to nothing at all. along with permission to test the mirror galvanometer during the voyage. later he substituted a silk thread from one of his niece Agnes’s dresses. inventiveness.700 miles. so he liked to claim. yielding to Whitehouse’s opinion. Inspired. he created a weightless pointer for his galvanometer. and by directing a light beam onto the mirror in such a way that the reflected spot swung back and forth across a graduated scale. was the subject of Thomson’s second patent. (In the first attempt he used a hair plucked from his dog. Having made a prototype. but again he backed out at the last minute. (His professorial salary was not much more than £200 per year. Whitehouse was supposed to go along to oversee electrical tests. who complained openly about “the frantic fooleries of the . turned him down.000 from the Atlantic Telegraph Company to build a number of instruments for use with the cable to be laid later that year. he requested the substantial sum of £2. All went well. taken out in 1858. he substituted for the moving magnet-and-pointer arrangement a tiny piece of magnetized steel that he glued to the back of a piece of mirrored glass and suspended by a short fiber. The directors. but later he managed to get £500. by light reflecting off a monocle dangling around his neck. Thomson’s initiative.

separated and let water flood below. accompanied by a fleet of smaller vessels. Ten sailors had been injured. was washed out. Field tried delicately to make sure they went on different ships.” Morse. She became unsteerable and sat helplessly in seas that heaved over the decks. de Sauty. Whitehouse to prove he was in charge. Cyrus Field. while Thomson. as he had done previously. Thomson boarded the Agamemnon while Whitehouse arranged to go to Ireland to await signals coming down the wire. The Agamemnon came close to sinking. But at the last minute. W. 1858. steered clear of the worst. But Whitehouse was still chief electrician and Thomson an unpaid adviser. but the ship remained seaworthy and no cable had been lost. making the ship dangerously top heavy. The next day the crews attempted to splice together the cable ends from the two ships but encountered an absurd difficulty. The project almost ended in catastrophe before it began. The Niagara. became the de facto electrical authority on the Agamemnon. Coils of cable broke loose and flailed about. the two ships. already strained by the weight of cargo. On June 10. the storm began to abate. Whitehouse would have nothing to do unless or until a cable end reached Valentia. Also working to Thomson’s advantage was the fact that the directors had now agreed to Bright’s preference of having the ships meet in midocean and lay the cable from there out to both shores simultaneously. The Agamemnon steamed on to the rendezvous. who had also clashed with Field over technical choices. There was not enough room below deck for all the cable she carried. Ten days out a monstrous storm blew up. below. joining the Niagara on June 25. with Thomson striving to save his equipment. Half of the . Both appeared eager to travel with the 1858 cabling voyage. the larger and stouter ship. and some 250 tons was lashed on the upper deck. Thomson because he wanted to demonstrate the virtues of his mirror galvanometer. though still acting in what was formally described as an advisory role under engineer C. so weighed down with cable that “experienced mariners gazed in apprehension at their depth in water as they left the shore” departed for the mid-Atlantic rendezvous. dropped out of active participation. The electrical cabin. coal burst out of the holds and crashed back and forth as the ship lurched from side to side. After a perilous night. Deck planks.134 Degrees Kelvin Americans in the person of Mr. rolling her over at 45 degrees to one side then as far to the other. Whitehouse announced he couldn’t or wouldn’t go.

Thomson emerged from the . The Agamemnon had a slightly harder journey. was back in the middle of the Atlantic. the rest by Glass. on June 26. both ships were to return to the rendezvous and try again. Field. After only a few miles. Because of the haste of manufacture and lack of planning. wanted to try again. if contact was lost. Newfoundland. the cable snagged in the Niagara’s paying-out machinery and broke. near the optimistically named hamlet of Heart’s Content. But many of the financiers. it turned out that one company had wound the protective iron sheathing clockwise. On the first day Thomson and his colleagues suffered through an hour and a half of anxiety. were ready to wrap up the Atlantic Telegraph Company and label the entire enterprise a noble failure. On the second attempt they managed about 40 miles before the cable broke again. who had by now seen hundred of thousands of dollars slip to the bottom of the sea. along with most of the engineers and electricians. the third attempt was a charm. and the ships failed to find each other. Both returned to Ireland. the ships began to sail apart. tension on the cable would have caused both windings to unravel. Newall. the consummate salesman. the Agamemnon almost 150. allowing them to be joined. and by the end of July the fleet. S. after the mirror galvanometer abruptly ceased to register the periodic signal sent from the other ship. recoaled and reprovisioned. They still had plenty of cable and plenty of time before winter weather would begin to threaten.CABLE 135 cable sheathing had been made by R. connected by a cable through which they maintained electrical contact. against difficult weather. trailing behind it a cable that was still receiving signals from the other ship. prevailed again. Elliott. Now fog had descended. Had the two ends been spliced directly together. when the cable parted as it was disappearing over the latter’s stern. Around midnight on July 28 the splice was made. Despite the catalog of mishaps and errors thus far. The engineers had to improvise an ungainly wooden bracket through which the cable ends were wound and secured. Field. A third time they tried. The Niagara sailed west and arrived on August 5 in Trinity Bay. while the other had done the opposite. Finally. The Niagara had sailed a little over 100 miles. By prior agreement. In two voyages Field and his colleagues had succeeded only in scattering several hundred miles of costly cable at various places on the floor of the Atlantic.

From Bangor. He waited anxiously “in a perfect fever of nervous excitement. .” 2In . where Thomson was obliged to hand over the cable to Whitehouse’s care. with a halfdespairing look for the result. Thomson told Bright he thought the conductor somewhere in the cable was broken but that the insulation was intact.2 In succeeding days newspapers carried more tidbits of news.” wrote the London Times reporter sailing with the expedition. the gutta percha had healed and all was well again. the Herald also included this: “Skepticism of the Vermonters: The news of the successful laying of the Atlantic cable is received here with feelings of suspicion. Mayors pontificated. its digest of joyful reports from across the nation. The Rutland Courier is out with the despatch in an extra. ministers offered up grateful sermons. . after such lamentable beginnings. yet in mind clear and collected. to Washington. The very thought of disaster seemed to overpower him.” he declared. in dread of another failure. testing and waiting. . “The electrical signals sent and received through the whole are perfect. Then just a few minutes later signals from the Niagara began to come through again. His hand shook so much that he could scarcely adjust his eyeglass.” The unexpected news. “The Great Event of the Age . D. in Newfoundland. . saw nothing. Triumph of Science . The engineers convinced themselves that the cable had suffered a minor fault as it was sinking to the seabed but that once laying there securely. in frigid temperatures and under enormous pressure.” So he and Bright and the rest waited. His face was deadly pale. London within a Flash of New York .C. This news will send an electric thrill throughout the world” blared the New York Herald on the morning of August 6. bonfires blazed. “By the blessing of Divine Providence it has succeeded. It did not pay to think too much about what might have gone wrong. telegraphed an announcement of the success to New York. cannons roared. set off hysteria in the press and in the streets. .136 Degrees Kelvin electrical cabin “in a fearful state of excitement. By August 5 the Agamemnon had reached Valentia.. but Thomson. but very few believe a word of it. At one point someone saw the light spot from the mirror galvanometer twitch through an unmistakable 40 degrees. The veins on his forehead were swollen. Field. shaking like an aspen leaf. dashing into the operations room. church bells pealed out. and inland to Cincinnati and Chicago. Maine. .

&c. refused to say what he was doing in the telegrapher’s hut at Valentia.” Just as skepticism erupted openly. and to strengthen the doubters of the enterprise. “we are unable to return any other answer than that the cable remains all right—the electrical signals passing through its whole length satisfactorily—but that the electricians have not yet concluded their arrangements for putting their recording instruments into operation. was the inaugural message from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan? On August 7 the New York Post felt obliged to assure its readers that “the rumors of deception and trickery. that adjustments were in hand. In response to numerous inquiries.” “Where’s the Queen’s message? Is the insulation perfect? Will the Atlantic telegraph work? Why don’t they give us the information?” inquired the exasperated editors of the Herald on August 16. and Whitehouse. &c. But where. Thomson had left Ireland a few days after landing. who complained further about the secrecy surrounding Whitehouse’s “experiments. have not the least foundation.CABLE 137 delivered in triumphal style. But the tone of the reports gradually changed. The New York newspapers reprinted confused comments from the London Times and added their own scraps of intelligence from Newfoundland. when everybody knows. that if the connection is good. however.. that signals were coming through. one hour is sufficient for putting up the batteries and adjustment?” In London the board of the Atlantic Telegraph Company was growing similarly restless. who knows a little of practical telegraphy. jubilation squelched it. or even one day. The following morning the Herald was back with stacked triumphal head- . so far as we know or believe. said the telegraph operators. the press began to ask. Messages from Newfoundland said that all was well. such as this item of noninformation issued on August 13. The question is continually asked. or even one week.” but just a week later the paper published a letter from a knowledgeable correspondent saying that the emanations from Whitehouse and his aides to the effect that they needed another five or six weeks were “enough to awaken in the sanguine unpleasant apprehensions.. still insisting on the need for unspecified adjustments. Why should six weeks. be required for making the ‘experiments’.

and a great banquet that went on past midnight. Another Great Problem Solved . Reunion of all the Nationalities . political communications. Literature and the Mechanic Forces Joined Hand in Hand. a parade that took hours to pass down Broadway. . &c. and when. . war will be impossible. or week—nevertheless. .” trumpeted the Herald.. .. day. . Art. “Glorious Recognition of the Most Glorious Work of the Age . boosters of the cable were fond of pointing out. . the cable would bring peace to the world. . with half a million people thronging the streets. New York City threw an enormous gala for its heroic son. &c. The President’s Reply . on September 1. . Agriculture. in spite of the fatuity and perverseness of rulers. Commerce.” As September wore on there were only enigmatic reports of further difficulties and reluctant admissions by the Atlantic . . and the British government sent an order through the telegraph countermanding the dispatch of a regiment of troops from Canada to India. Cyrus Field.138 Degrees Kelvin lines: “The Queen’s Message to the President of the United States . editorializing thus: “True.” But just four days later there was a sharp change of tone: “It is rather unfortunate that. during the whole week that was spent by our City Fathers in celebrating the electrical union of the Old World with the New. Not a single public despatch has traversed the wire for some ten days or more. hundreds of messages went back and forth: news. . upon the faith of the Atlantic Telegraph Company. ending hostilities there. the Queen’s message bears no date. . Science. Now’s the Time for a Universal Jubilee . . . saved the government £50. England and France had concluded a treaty with China. that it was actually transmitted from Ireland to Newfoundland by a submarine electric telegraph. we have not been favored with a single evidence of its usefulness.” The Post remained more skeptical. Everybody Crazy With Joy . . This action alone.000.” Then in succeeding days came actual news. we are assured. neither do we have any intimation of the time it has taken to transmit it—whether an hour. The Indian Mutiny was coming under the control of imperial forces. . For a couple of weeks. Among its many virtues. &c. or so said the Post the following morning: “It is the harbinger of an age when international difficulties will not have time to ripen into bloody results. commercial transactions. . Tremendous Sensation Throughout the City .

for the Queen’s brief communication to be clearly received in Newfoundland.CABLE 139 Telegraph Company that no signals were at present being received. Whitehouse believed. To supply those currents. he substituted Thomson’s sensitive galvanometer. This was why the Queen’s message traveling back from Canada came through so quickly—it was received by a mirror galvanometer. Throughout September communication was slow. to try to reconstruct events and see if the project was salvageable. It had taken more than 16 hours. The cable had worked.000 apiece. so he could sent printed strips to London that appeared to come from his receiver. This. the board of the Atlantic Telegraph Company managed to pry Whitehouse from his station in Valentia. at least in some accounts. For Thomson and the others. supplied by a series of powerful battery cells. Signals. sold at £1. it emerged later. When he had handed over cable operation at the beginning of August. though mysteriously the operators there managed to send the same message back the other way for verification in only 67 minutes. and eventually. often had to be repeated over and over until a message successfully got through. Thomson had been receiving clear signals on his sensitive mirror galvanometer. and remediable. he hooked up a gigantic induction coil (a kind of transformer) five feet long. began to receive signals from across the ocean. It seemed there was a difficulty at the Irish end. often fragmentary or unreadable. Whitehouse immediately connected his own equipment—heavy electromechanical receivers of standard design for overland telegraphy. “near the shore. but it had never worked well. By the end of the month the hard news could no longer be concealed: The cable had fallen silent. error ridden. Days went by when nothing came through.000 volts. But he could detect no reply. sifting through the wreckage of . Then. Ordering an investigation. but had an assistant manually feed the messages into one of his own devices.” Shares of the company. and yielding up to 2. though Whitehouse pretended otherwise. though experiments and tests continued. by brute force. Thomson and others took over. and untrustworthy. The exact cause of death could never be established. would be more than enough to blast signals from Ireland to Newfoundland. requiring large currents. were down to £500 or less. he got the Queen’s message through.

Writing from Ireland to his friend James Joule at the end of September. in some cases almost piercing through the gutta percha to the surrounding layer of tarred hemp. almost ever since I accepted a temporary charge of this station. This was the old cable. Probably there had been a partial fault in the cable. Whether winter storage of the cable had caused additional problems he could not say. “I should like much to know to what cause you attribute these imperfections. a flaw in the insulation hundreds of miles from the Irish end. the directors fired Whitehouse. D.140 Degrees Kelvin Whitehouse’s miscalculations and deceptions was dismal work.400 miles of submarine wire. de Cogan (1985) speculates that gutta percha. I have had. A section with perfect insulation. which. What is in your opinion the cause of the Cable ceasing working?” he asked.” Learning what had really happened at Valentia during August and September. only the dull and heartless business of investigating the pathology of faults in submerged conductors. But the damage was done. an impure organic material. may have suffered a kind of bacterial fermentation while stored at Plymouth. Thomson speculated that the gutta percha had been applied too hot or that the cable had been bent before it had properly cooled. and when its effects are instantaneous exchange of ideas between the old and new worlds. he found that in places the copper wire was distinctly off center. which I have never found in any other scientific pursuit—instead of this. suffered no harm when they applied thousands of 3A piece of 1857 or 1858 cable found in Ireland in the 1980s suffered the same problems that Field described.3 A pair of electricians tested samples of the cable with the huge voltages that Whitehouse had applied. to which I looked forward with so much pleasure. . possesses a combination of physical and (in the original sense of the word) metaphysical interest. submerged in seawater. “Instead of telegraphic work. The following summer Field wrote to Thomson to say that on examining some cutup sections of the cable that he had sold to Tiffany’s in New York as mementos. when it has to be done through 2. hastily manufactured to a poor design for the 1857 expedition. then stored through the following winter in tanks of water at Plymouth. Thomson contrasted his initial enthusiasm with the subsequent disappointment.

making clear that Whitehouse was now telling falsehoods—in particular. Naively. One director wrote sternly to Thomson: “I must not hide from you that the course you took in relation to our recent difficulties with Mr Whitehouse added greatly to our troubles . Thomson could believe that Whitehouse genuinely thought his telegraph system superior. selfish & unscrupulous. and the directors responding in kind. in the end. who had now seen close to £2 million drowned and lost forever. . In all likelihood the 1858 cable had too many imperfections to have lasted long. “the interior of the jar lit up as if it were a lantern” and the hole in the insulation burned out big enough to put a thumb in. Honest disagreement was how science made progress. Thomson at first tried to defend Whitehouse. Thomson had thought about proposing Whitehouse as a fellow of the Royal Society. Whitehouse attacking the board and Thomson. But the directors. But when they made a pinprick hole in the gutta percha and repeated the test.” Thomson learned his lesson. despite all his misgivings about Whitehouse. The dispute burst into the correspondence pages of the London Times. Official statements from the Atlantic Telegraph Company made plain their confidence in Thomson and utter distrust of Whitehouse. Thomson blinked a couple of times before he could believe it. Eventually. faced with direct evidence of Whitehouse’s dishonesty. . . but not maliciously. he clung to the belief that a man of science must necessarily be honest and sincere. . & I am therefore much pleased to find that you are at length convinced that we acted wisely in dismissing Mr Whitehouse. telling the board he had acted unwisely. Perhaps. as it turned out. . Thomson wrote privately to all parties. unworldly academic. he claimed that the president’s reply to Queen Victoria was received on one of his devices.CABLE 141 volts to it. But Whitehouse’s unauthorized experiments and desperate application of larger and larger voltages undoubtedly brought it to a premature end. This great undertaking has been jeopardized & perhaps ruined by placing the electrical department in the hands of a man so inefficient. whereas in fact it came through Thomson’s mirror galvanometer. Even after their first dispute. . But believe it he did. were beyond magnanimity. he could not grasp that Whitehouse resorted to trickery because he could not bear to be upstaged by some young.

Then came secession and war. nor indeed of voltage or current. but how much it would swing in response to a given current varied from .142 Degrees Kelvin Even so. Thomson sounded a heartening message of Victorian optimism and the inevitability of progress. a scheme by which Field could unload his expensive shares on innocent investors. But even his powers of persuasion were now inadequate. did not strictly speaking measure electric currents. The loss of position gained is an event unknown in the history of man’s struggle with the forces of inanimate Nature. not the least of which was the absence of any standardized procedure for measuring electrical conductivity or its inverse. . Even so. In 1859 he was in England again. But on returning to the United States. He acted as consultant to Glass. trying to win government support for another venture. a current passing through the device made a needle or a light beam swing. prospects for another cable attempt did not immediately fade. “The foundation of a real and lasting success is securely laid upon the ruins which alone are apparent as the result of the work hitherto accomplished. . Elliott in the construction of a Mediterranean line from Malta to Alexandria in 1861. at a city banquet celebrating his contribution to the cable. But that was his last involvement with telegraphy. Rather. Galvanometers. What has been done will be done again. Whitehouse did not entirely lose his reputation. There was at that time no scientific unit of resistance. Field found the economy in a downturn and politics uncertain as the country headed toward civil war. It was some years before an Atlantic telegraph again engaged anyone’s attention. . After the jubilation of 1858 turned sour. but Field had to contend with money and politics. rumors began to fly that the whole thing had been a hoax from the outset. electrical resistance. He returned to Brighton and died there in 1890. at the age of 73.” Thomson may have firmly believed that the obduracy of nature could be overcome. In Glasgow in early 1859. *** Thomson’s urgent effort to introduce quality control into the manufacture of commercial copper wire came up against numerous obstacles. In New York a disastrous warehouse fire put his old paper business on the road to bankruptcy. including Thomson’s ultrasensitive mirror galvanometer.

engineers used the method of comparison. Variations in temperature or pressure might alter the capacitance of the cable. Telegraph engineers learned a number of tricks for locating faults in an underwater cable. effectively earthing the wire at some unknown position. the smaller must be the resistance of the wire it was passing through. one sample of wire could be said to have twice the resistance of another when. Some absolute standard of resistance. They kept beside them miles of cable.CABLE 143 one instrument to another. But submarine telegraphs. for example.) The inability to perform accurate electric measurements mattered little for overland telegraphs covering modest distances. if both were connected in circuit with the same battery and galvanometer. displayed a spectrum of intermediate conditions between working clearly and not working at all. The simplest case was an outright failure such that the sea came into contact with bare copper. so as to compare the resistance of the faulty cable to some known length of wire. So. Engineers most often tested for a signal by touching a tongue to the bare wire: An ordinary battery produces a titillating tingle.5 volts for this reason. and equally important some way of measuring resistances against the absolute scale. The greater the current so produced. This problem fell naturally into Thomson’s range of interests. especially when dealing with thousands of miles of underwater cable. or voltage. became increasingly necessary. it had been established that a given type of battery. He had already proposed an absolute way of measuring temperature. always produced the same electric potential. influencing both the strength and the timing of emerging signals. as Thomson more than anyone knew. the needle swung to half the amplitude for the first sample as for the second. At first. Either they worked or they didn’t. In 1851 he had brought before the English-speaking scientific world his expanded and revised version of a sys- . A known voltage applied at the shore end would pass some current down the wire as the electricity ran to ground at the fault. say a zinc and a copper electrode immersed in an acidic solution. therefore the closer the fault must be to the shore. Sporadic failures of the insulation could let some of the current trickle into the ocean. based on Carnot’s theory of engines. (Though the underlying science was still fuzzy. The standard household battery produces 1. This was hardly convenient. coiled up.

Still. Weber had also set out an alternative system. Here was the prospect of a more practical system: A coil could be made with some possibility of sameness from one laboratory to the next. Electric charge can be measured according to the force produced between two equal charges at a known separation. and allows resistance to be defined in an absolute. and in any case the unit of charge implied by the metric unit of force over a separation of one centimeter was enormous. enunciated by Georg Simon Ohm in 1827 though previously hinted at by many others. Current is the rate at which charge flows down a wire. Weber showed how to connect electrical phenomena with the familiar system of mechanical measurements by using Coulomb’s inverse square force law. Permanent magnets were no more standardized or controllable than static electric charges.144 Degrees Kelvin tem of electrical units proposed on theoretical grounds by Wilhelm Weber in Germany. expounding Weber’s ideas. But if you only know the current. and vice versa. there are two unknowns: you would know the voltage if you knew the resistance. Theoretically neat though it may have been. mechanical way—that is. This gives an independent relationship between current and voltage. There was no way to manufacture electric charge in reproducible amounts. filled in this gap by using one of his friend Joule’s early results. and the earth’s magnetic field was at least approximately the same everywhere. but if you don’t know either. it took his involvement with telegraphy to fully convince him of the need for practical measurement systems based on sound scientific principles. using only measurements of force and energy. Joule had shown that the heating produced when electricity flows down a resistive wire is proportional to the product of the voltage and the current—what we now call the power of the electric flow. orders of magnitude bigger than anything encountered in the laboratory or the telegraph room. once allowance for the laboratory’s latitude had been . According to Ohm’s law. the current flowing down a wire is equal to the voltage applied divided by the wire’s resistance. where do you start? Thomson. but Weber observed that a current passing through a coil of known dimensions would create an electromagnet that would feel a measurable force from the earth’s magnetic field. based on the force between magnets rather than charges. this so-called electrostatic system of units did not lend itself to practical application.

or some other units of a magnitude ill adapted to the peculiar and various requirements of the electric telegraph. as far as telegraphers were concerned. They were just convenient. But the scientists of the BA. and acting with the best motives. Charles Wheatstone’s favored unit of resistance was a one-foot length of copper wire weighing 100 grains which. by which any scientist anywhere could in principle calibrate a galvanometer. the veteran telegraph engineers Charles Bright and Latimer Clark made a plea for the adoption of standardized measures that telegraphers had devised. These he distributed to his colleagues throughout Europe. and there is a fear that while bringing the highest electrical knowledge to the subject. Jacobi had in 1848 made in his laboratory a number of lengths of copper wire whose resistances. though they never found widespread use. The force produced on an electromagnetic coil therefore offered the chance of creating a standardized electric current. Clark disliked the way his and Bright’s initiative had been taken out of their hands. they may be induced simply to recommend the adoption of Weber’s absolute units. Werner Siemens.” . so far as he could measure with a cell and galvanometer. Clark voiced his concern that “the gentlemen who constitute the Committee . were identical. the world’s first journal of electrical engineering. would have a fixed and uniform cross section. on the other hand. . or equally inconvenient. For none of these units was there any scientific or rational justification. H. was far beyond the expertise of the telegraph engineers and technical men who actually needed standard measurements. So elaborate a procedure. if well made. which always produced the same potential.CABLE 145 made. . The German scientist M. assembled a committee to look into ways of devising a system that was generally applicable but also had a sound theoretical foundation. are but little connected with practical telegraphy. In the Electrician. Bright and Clark wanted the BA to bestow an official imprimatur on one or more of these standards. At the 1861 British Association meeting in Manchester. Their voltage standards took the form of known electrochemical battery cells. while their resistance standards were approximately reproducible pieces of metal. argued for the use of a column of mercury contained in a glass tube one meter tall and one square millimeter in cross section. aware of the scientific as well as practical importance of choosing units. difficult enough for laboratory scientists.

and only by Easter of the following year was he able to hobble about on crutches. In the late 1860s Stevenson. was not there in person. son and grand- . Tension developed at the 1861 BA meeting in part because Thomson. Unable to come to Manchester for the BA meeting. Just before Christmas the previous year he had been amusing himself on the ice at Largs with the Scottish game of curling. We would know little of Fleeming Jenkin except that an account of his life came to be written by none other than Robert Louis Stevenson. Eventually he recovered. Thomson would perhaps have been able to soothe and charm the telegraphers Bright and Clark.146 Degrees Kelvin This was unfair. who more than anyone combined theoretical understanding with direct experience of telegraphy. near the top of the thigh bone. A week of this treatment produced no improvement. Nevertheless. with Thomson repeatedly under chloroform for the pain. at Thomson’s urging especially. and the committee included practical men such as Wheatstone and Joule. such as the telegraphers preferred. though they joined after a year or two. Bright and Clark refused at first to serve on the committee. a friend to both sides. his left hand pressed to his hip. The local doctor diagnosed a fracture. Even when applied science and engineering had hardly moved out of infancy. and when a third physician came from Edinburgh and pronounced Thomson to have broken his leg after all. a lameness somewhat concealed by the way he would dart about at great speed. as well as more refined theorists such as the young James Clerk Maxwell. but his left leg remained an inch and a half shorter than the right. agreed to use Weber’s magnetic system as a theoretical foundation and refer any practical measurements. when he had fallen badly and broken his left leg. took a leading role. to these absolute standards. The leg was set as best it could be. distrust and wariness already existed between the academics and the practical men. irreversible damage was already done. Their eagerness to take part had been deflected when the nascent committee. He was on his back for many weeks. Thomson communicated his views on units in letters to a young engineering colleague. Fleeming (pronounced Flemming) Jenkin. but the supposedly more expert physician summoned from Glasgow claimed it was only a sprain of some sort and recommended bed rest with frequent application of hot bandages. Thomson. but Jenkin had a tendency to lecture.

“At the least sign of unrest his eye would fall on me and I was quelled. you would have said. “though it was new to me. He was simply a man from whose reproof one shrank. “Such a feat is comparatively easy in a small class.” Stevenson recalled. Jenkin had already made an effort to measure the insulating properties of samples of gutta percha systematically. attended Edinburgh University ostensibly to become an engineer.” Stevenson observed. Mr. Stevenson. For this he had no interest or aptitude and went to classes only to idle about and make jokes in the back row. but I have misbehaved in smaller classes and under eyes more Olympian than Fleeming Jenkin’s. as vain. He also turned less severe and judgmental as he got older.” said Jenkin. though he could be forbidding on first acquaintance. S. “I could not say but that this view was tenable. near Liverpool. petulant. They were natural allies. He had earlier sailed with John Brett on the cabling voyage from Sardinia to Africa. strove to instill the notion of quality control in technical manufacturing as insistently as Thomson had done. as had been the .CABLE 147 son of the Stevensons who made a name for themselves building lighthouses. he was only 28 years old and full of the righteousness of a new convert to the world of scientific engineering. Jenkin. overseeing the manufacture of the Atlantic cable. which he generally was able to seduce from his professors whether he had attended their lectures or not. “You see. these are the laws and I am here to apply them. when he was working at R. brooked no such unseemliness in his lecture room. then professor of engineering. full of a singular energy. careful and assiduous. He had come to Thomson’s attention a few years previously. But Jenkin resisted. as a peacock.” Stevenson cut the class altogether but struck up a friendship with Jenkin through a common interest in amateur dramatics. and he came to admire the man for his rectitude. “He seemed in talk aggressive. and trying to detect electrical leaks. Before the 1861 BA. applying a current. Newall in Birkenhead. always ready to engage in serious discussion. but when he attended the 1861 BA meeting as Thomson’s unofficial deputy.” Eventually Stevenson wangled his certificate even out of the obdurate professor. instead of throwing lengths of cable into a tank of water. At the end of the session he had to obtain certificates for his classes. But on closer acquaintance he proved honest and rational. Jenkin.” Stevenson wrote of Jenkin.

Thomson came up with an ingenious extension of Weber’s method that made the magnetic system into a feasible basis for practical definitions. the difficult pride of the autodidact. creating a secondary or induced magnetic field that acted to twist the small magnet. Werner Siemens’s column of mercury was making headway on the continent as a resistance standard. hanging horizontally like a compass needle. Scientific rationalization of electrical units. At the center he suspended a small permanent magnet. its resistance. it was that British units should rule the world. as apprentices. With the coil stationary. When the coil rotated. Thomson proved. and if the engineers and scientists could agree on one thing. often. minor matter though it may seem now.) Neither Bright nor Clark nor Jenkin had any formal university education in the technical applications of electrical science. Thomson impressed upon Jenkin the importance of understanding electrical tests in a sound theoretical way as well as through experience. these niceties seemed like needless fussiness. Because both the direct and induced forces on the central magnet depended on the . its wires cutting through the lines of the terrestrial magnetic field. They had. He mounted a circular wire coil so that it could rotate around a vertical axis. in the modified magnetic field it now experienced. but no doubt too they rather feared the intrusion into their livelihoods of scientific principles they could not follow. (The modern British Institution of Electrical Engineers began life in 1871 as the Society of Telegraph Engineers. threatened to take away from the pioneers of telegraphy control of the subject they had invented. no such course was available to them. No doubt they were eager to adopt practical guidelines and move on. To men such as Bright and Clark. the magnet lined up with the earth’s field. On the other hand. Telegraphy was the foundation of electrical engineering as a profession before it became an academic subject. a current began to flow. A failure of insulation too small to show up in such crude tests might nevertheless cripple a 2.000-mile undersea cable. Instead. With the coil rotating at constant speed. the magnet shifted to a new stable position. just as William Thomson’s older brother James had done. they learned some mathematics and physics and picked up engineering principles on the job. and its rate of rotation. was that the deflection of the magnet depended only on the dimensions of the coil.148 Degrees Kelvin usual practice. The clever and elegant result.

to resistances that Weber himself had made. . It was important to get the length of the wire accurately. to good accuracy. This was the drawback to Weber’s theoretically elegant structure. by this time professor at King’s College in London. as well as in comparison to Jacobi’s old standard. The pedantically correct unit would have been one meter per second or one centimeter per second. and to the mercury column favored by Siemens.CABLE 149 earth’s magnetic field. The need to know the earth’s field was the great defect of Weber’s original proposal. made of platinum-silver alloy. a little over 10 BA units. all with slightly different resistances but measured. resistance turns out to be measured in the same units as a velocity.4 and the BA settled on 10. Maxwell. so it was claimed. the so-called June 4 standard. committee members announced that they had produced a single physical sample. which Maxwell and his collaborators did by unwinding the coil and laying the wire into a convenient groove between long floorboards at the laboratory. depending on which of two competing metric systems one chose. oversaw experiments to establish a British Association unit of resistance using Thomson’s method. Over the next few years they produced half a dozen such standards. the position at which these forces cancelled didn’t depend at all on the strength of the field. arising from the way electrical measurements are derived ultimately from a force measurement. existed at the level of five percent or more for many years. In fact.000 kilometers per second as its unit. this being a convenient magnitude for measuring resistances encountered in day-to-day work. the BA unit 4This is best regarded as a purely algebraic equivalence. In Weber’s magnetic system. Thomson’s solution got around that problem. For comparison. but either one would have been an impossibly tiny amount of resistance. At the 1863 BA meeting. By virtue of the BA’s scientific influence as well as the leading role that British manufacturers played in the telegraph industry.620 kilometers per second—in other words. without stretching. with a resistance measured at 107. discrepancies among these standards. Weber’s electrostatic system gives resistance the dimensions of the reciprocal of a velocity. which was only approximately known.

He too was at the 1881 Paris meeting.” So it was.150 Degrees Kelvin became by the late 1860s the de facto standard. . . As long as different BA standards varied by a few percent. Wilhelm. a strategy bound to cause more confusion than it resolved. Engineers did not have the means to calibrate resistances themselves. There he fell under the spell of Britain’s entrepreneurial culture. . because they are free. Yet as a people they are great. attending the Paris conference. In Paris in 1881. became a British citizen. as was Thomson’s great friend Helmholtz. He wrote to his older brother: “I have had the opportunity to hear much about the character of the Englishman and have arrived at the conclusion that it is composed of pure egoism. Adopting the BA unit on the admission that its precise value had yet to be determined was. Even with Thomson’s innovation. by force of intellectual power as well as personal charm. with Siemens mustering a good deal of support for his position. Debate over the resistance standard came to a stalemate. anglicized his name to William. who had gone to London as a young man to market an electroplating method that the two of them had developed. use of Thomson’s method demanded high experimental expertise. He stayed in England. Siemens. though not without a hard assessment of its detractions. for example. I will be spoilt for Germany for the rest of my life. an Englishman. and became an acquaintance of William Thomson. however. calibrating resistances on the absolute scale proved troublesome. Siemens insisted. on the grounds that it was easily defined and reproducible in simple laboratories. The chairman of the . Thomson led a successful effort at the first International Conference for the Determination of Electrical Units to win official adoption of the BA definition as the universal standard. He continued to push hard for his mercury column. does not feel any shame in deceiving another person and there is no greater triumph for him than to hoodwink a foreigner. and the people in Germany cannot imagine what freedom is. the practical utility of the system was questionable. When I have lived here for a full year. It happened that Werner Siemens had a younger brother. especially a German. insisted stubbornly and not without reason that the BA standard was all very well from an intellectual standpoint but of little help for engineers. took up telegraphic and electrical engineering in earnest.

along with a firm commitment that his mercury standard would be calibrated and approved for practical use. and volton. Thomson and the rest settled on the modern system. and voltad. ohmad. Giving an official name to the colloquial BA unit they chose ohm. in order to get a Frenchman into the picture. discover of “animal electricity” in frog’s legs) for current. farad (Faraday) for electric charge. faron. he noted. This was on a Saturday evening. not wanting the effort to end in deadlock.CABLE 151 session. wrote to Thomson suggesting ampère for the strength of a magnetic pole.” Varley also disliked Clark’s names for the multiples. ohma (Ohm). on the grounds. for electromotive force or electric potential. F. that Fleeming Jenkin “writes so badly that . . Bright and Clark had suggested galvat (from Luigi Galvani. and Coulomb. the conferees at Paris succeeded in assuaging chauvinism while appropriately honoring certain scientists. ohmon. Clark transformed these into galvad. In another late-night meeting over hot chocolate. Varley. Thomson never . and volt (Alessandro Giuseppe Volta. adjourned the public discussion. farad. another veteran of the Atlantic cable voyages. where deal making commenced. Farad turned into the unit of capacitance. A smaller group reconvened in the salon of a hotel. William Siemens persuaded his brother into a compromise by which he accepted the theoretical superiority of the BA definition. and national pride from many quarters demanded satisfaction. since it was Ohm’s law that clearly defined electrical resistance. Issues of penmanship aside. In their original proposal to the BA. Names for the units had still to be chosen. and suggested that a millionfold of these units should be named galvon. C. and added: “I object to Galvad because Galvani discovered next to nothing. was honored with the unit of electrostatic charge. who had established the force law between charges. Ohmad and Ohmon will be confounded in indiscreet writing”—an objection. who invented the electrochemical battery) for resistance. volt became the unit of electric potential. Ampere got the unit of current (with Thomson insisting that the accent be dropped for international usage). Thomson may have been thinking of Faraday’s early understanding of the role of capacitance in the retardation of undersea telegraph signals. that also applied to himself and Thomson. But equally. a sort of secondary honor and arguably less than the man deserved. . among other things.

and therefore may have been disinclined to push for a greater recognition. still less in anyone as energetic. and forceful. with the mercury standard an interim solution until the wrinkles were worked out. The BA definition was theoretically sound but hard to put into practice. came eventually to see their importance.) Speaking to the Institution of Electrical Engineers in London in 1883. articulate. Latimer Clark. In 1884 a third international conference settled on a column of mercury 106 centimeters long and one square millimeter in cross section. so different from his own brilliance at mathematical problem solving. Germans. (This was refined to 106. But their only representative was Henry A. came to the conference as faits accomplis when it reconvened on Monday morning. Writing the evening before his 1883 lecture to remind Thomson. who was seriously outnumbered by Frenchmen. as equivalent to one ohm. Thomson and Helmholtz hammered the deal through. in case 5Especially since the meeting was in France. In no other person did experience of telegraphy combine with profound knowledge of elementary principles.3 centimeters at a meeting in Chicago in 1893. The compromise between the BA unit and Siemens’s mercury standard.5 The 1881 meeting left the resistance standard in an unhappy state. each smothering discontent from their own countrymen. Thomson portrayed the saga of the BA unit as a victory in the long term. . by which time the numerous standards agreed to within 0. ampere and coulomb. The French had no axes to grind and were presumably happy to get two of the four basic units. who had at first doubted the necessity for the principles Thomson espoused. the Americans might legitimately have pushed for franklin over coulomb for charge. Thomson’s effort in setting electrical measurements on a trustworthy theoretical foundation represents one of the most influential if little known achievements of his career. Rowland of Johns Hopkins.152 Degrees Kelvin wholly grasped the character of Faraday’s individual genius. along with the names of the basic measures.1 percent. and the British. at the temperature of melting ice. The BA program continued for some time to make better-quality standards. and neither the BA wire standards nor Siemens’ mercury column were good to more than a few percent.

he concluded: “I was not mathematical enough to see the enormous value of an absolute system.” *** Jenkin revered Thomson so much that his young wife. One evening I was sitting reading by the lamplight. often several a day. The business of telegraphy claimed an increasing part of his life.” This was in 1859. But the splendid buoyancy and radiance. ‘I have had a visit from Professor Apollo. with the years. . Always rushing hither and thither. said with a most radiant smile. he would put the matter aside until he could spare an hour or two at some later date. fair-haired young man. who.’ I never saw again. when I heard hurried steps coming up the stairs: the door opened and in came a tall. then solve it he would. ‘Where is Fleeming? Are you his wife? I must see him. and with the beginnings of a public reputation after his adventures with the Atlantic cable voyages and the noisy dispute with Whitehouse. Annie. During this convalescence he kept beside him a green notebook. founded on mass. While laid up for months with his broken leg he had overseen researches at Glasgow by sending letters. when Thomson was only 35 years old but already a powerful figure in the British scientific community. and now had no time for it anyway. & space. not waiting to be announced. If he could solve a problem in a few hours. It is this which has gained for the British system of Electrical Measurement its universal acceptance by mankind. Thomson had never been one for slow cogitation. demanding a detailed account of the results of yesterday’s experiments and ordering the next series to be done at the instant. I am William Thomson. It was in the following winter that Professor Thomson met with the accident which lamed him for life. Donald M’Farlane.’ I saw for the first time that benevolent bending of his eyes on the person to whom he spoke that always remained and increased. an authority on every aspect of physics. to his technical assistant. of his and Bright’s original suggestions.CABLE 153 it had slipped his mind. time. as he had done when learning from Stokes of the submarine cable difficulties. I think. If not. She imagined “Professor Thomson as an aged and severe philosopher and rather dreaded an introduction to him. which made me say to my husband when he came in later. feared meeting the great man.

and when he went he was whirled away just in time to catch some mysterious train which started for Glasgow at the earliest possible hour in the morning. In the early 1860s the Jenkins lived in London. but their character changed. When he came. or when someone was speaking directly to him. on the mechanical stresses on a cable dangling from the end of a ship. and any other technical thoughts that came to him. this was a kind of heat pump. presented to the Glasgow Philosophical Society his idea for a double-piston machine that could both heat and cool air for domestic purposes. and the stationmaster would delay it until Thomson got there. drafts of papers. He wrote numerous short notes on problems of telegraphy. the foundations of thermodynamics—sank from view. clutching a green notebook as he hurried from cab to carriage. in the middle of dinner. He had even.” As he became more busy and more famous. experiments to be attempted. everything at topmost speed. At home. His scientific publications proceeded apace. it was always in a hansom cab. James Clerk Maxwell. or seemed to me always to do. the law of increasing entropy. . For the remainder of his life he never went anywhere without a green notebook and would pull one out on his numerous train journeys between Glasgow and London. so that the significance of Thomson’s fundamental but not fully resolved contributions began to fade. in front of which he stood. an antecedent of systems that have become popular in recent years for home heating and air conditioning. and so on. in 1852. the address of which he never could learn though he came thither constantly. on varied phenomena in electrical induction and transmission and the like. on the properties of copper and other conductors. In Germany. he would send a message to the stationmaster in Glasgow that he wanted to catch the last train to London. Clausius was polishing and refining his formulation of what would become known as the second law of thermodynamics. “because [Thomson] always did.154 Degrees Kelvin whose pages he rapidly filled with mathematical ideas. The great themes of his youth—the nature of electricity and magnetism. “I say we dined hurriedly.” Annie Jenkin recalled. urging the driver on and guiding him by pointing his stick to our house. Thomson frequently went there on cable business and would squeeze in a visit to his friends. at home during a lull in the conversation.

so to speak. Thomson had written to Joule from the little telegrapher’s cabin at Valentia complaining of the drudgery of locating faults. Everywhere in the natural philosophy of the mid-1800s. But the cable did not pull him away. He began to enjoy the company of engineers and men of business. lay the scattered evidence of Thomson’s brilliance and originality. for him. He loved to solve problems.” Telegraphy didn’t distract Thomson from science. His contributions to electromagnetic theory and thermodynamics were in that vein. but only after saying how. He was not.CABLE 155 picking up on Thomson’s mathematical analysis and geometrical depiction of Faraday’s lines of force. in other words. of its own accord. Above all. flourishing in the world of commerce and enterprise. an intellectual but rather an astonishingly clever and brilliant man. it was for him what science was all about. to resolve puzzles and difficulties. He went willingly. He saw how to reconcile opposing views and bring mathematical models in line with experimental and engineering reality. began his long journey to a comprehensive theory of electromagnetism. In devoting so much time and energy to the creation of a system of electrical units. Thomson was good at that. Yet he never quite finished things off in a way that would allow history to judge him the true creator of any of the subjects he tackled. and he helped engineer an international solution. throughout the great systematization that became known as classical physics. His patent on the mirror galvanometer and other innovations brought him money. Telegraphy distracted him from real science—or so it is easy to think. especially practical rather than philosophical ones. transatlantic communication possessed “a combination of physical and (in the original sense of the word) metaphysical interest. In the dismal days after the failure of the 1858 cable. He traveled about the country at breakneck pace. The point of science was to make things happen. mixing scientific with business meetings. in that sense. he brought high principles to bear on empirical questions. He received fees for consulting and advising on other projects. *** . to get things done. which I have never found in any other scientific pursuit. Science for science’s sake could never have been Thomson’s motto.

engineers. submarine cables of increasing length had been laid with growing reliability in other parts of the world. From a modern perspective. Glass. Whitehouse returned to provide his own dissenting views of the operation of submarine cables. “Cyrus Field. of feasibility studies and cost-benefit analyses. and he. of prototypes and field tests. more than by hard-headed planning. even wonder.500-mile section from Malta to Alexandria and a 1.000 miles of insulated wire. in short. helped keep it alive. The first Atlantic cabling ventures had been driven by enthusiasm and a sense of adventure. By 1862 the Gutta Percha Company had manufactured some 9. Cyrus Field mustered support and money for a new Atlantic cable venture with remarkable alacrity.” In 1859 the British government had set up a formal parliamentary inquiry into the failure of the 1858 cable.156 Degrees Kelvin With the embers of the American Civil War barely cooling. including a 1. manufacturers. but as Thomson said later. that the Atlantic connection was unquestionably feasible but that the 1857 and 1858 attempts had been hasty and cavalier in their lack of attention to technical and engineering essentials. he gave help and impulse where they were required. During 22 hearings over a period of nine months. As Werner Siemens commented after the success of Brett’s English channel cable. worked with those who did not require revivification. oceanographers. revived the undertaking in 1865. Elliott had put down dozens of underwater telegraph links. “With the perseverance charac- . but in those days the whole panoply of research and development. with his English colleagues. The parliamentary inquiry. in a massive and detailed report that stands even today as a model investigation of a technological enterprise. from the other side of the Atlantic. had hardly been thought of. part of a chain that gave London instant contact with India. A number of British financiers and entrepreneurs became interested in the Atlantic project. Although the Atlantic Ocean remained unbridged. and electricians. concluded. but Thomson and Wheatstone succeeded in portraying him as a man out of his depth in this new technology. let alone systematized.400-mile connection across the Persian Gulf. testimony came from scientists. Latimer Clark provided a thorough account of the necessary properties of insulators and conductors and of the testing of cables. this is stating the obvious. both during manufacture and when in use.

Colonel Taliaferro P. He won support from the governments of Denmark.” he declared in 1859. before the problem was ripe for a scientific and technical solution. Failures accordingly could not but occur. the longest submerged section being about 600 miles between Greenland and Iceland.” By the mid-1860s. but speaking in 1859 to the merchants of Glasgow. formerly of the Union Army. Thomson’s hometown. At each landfall messages would be received and sent on to the next. I express my opinion. In his history of the subject. . Science itself might be the domain of experts. and Norway for a line that would run in sections from Newfoundland to Labrador to Greenland to Iceland to the Faroe Islands to Scotland and finally to Norway. he suggested that “to operate a line of that distance would require men such as Faraday and your Thomson—men of the very highest science. the laying of a large number of other cables was at once planned and attempted. Shaffner didn’t quite say that the direct link from Ireland to Newfoundland would fail. Such developments pleased as well as enriched Thomson. where will you find their equals to succeed them?” This missed the point. . . . but it no longer seemed exotic. that not ten consecutive words were ever sent through the cable in any one hour after it was laid. . But when they are gone. That was exactly why he had battled so hard to bring a rational system of electrical units into general use. however. had acquired some expertise in stringing telegraph lines around the interior of the United States and refused to believe that the 1858 cable had ever really worked. Shaffner. but the products of science ought to make life easier for the everyday engineer. Thomson’s goal was always to enlist technology in support of systems that ordinary men could operate with confidence. the Atlantic project had dissenters. Even so. of course. Sweden. “A line of two thousand miles cannot be successfully operated for telegraphic purposes. It was still an uncertain business. cable manufacture and laying had become practiced if not mature technologies. a reasonable strategy except that it required permanently manned stations in each of the desolate intermediate spots. . as Field rounded up his resources again.CABLE 157 teristic of the English in prosecuting their undertakings . Charles Bright credited Thomson’s improved mirror galvanometer as an essential factor in the ultimate success of the telegraph to India.

the electrical part of submarine telegraphy. ill-starred creation of the renowned English engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Brunel only once. constructed. with difficulty. Enthusiastic amateurs suggested suspending an Atlantic cable from buoys so that it ran only 50 or 100 feet below the surface. speaking at a meeting in London in 1861. or a railway. where the almost 700-foot-long hull of the unfinished Great Eastern loomed over the marshy Isle of Dogs. yards long. and laid. Brunel had taken him out to the east of London. pick it up again smoothly when a fault had been detected. engineers had developed impressive cabling machines. that allowed the crew to let the cable out at a controlled rate and. The most obvious change in the new expedition was that a single ship now carried the entire tonnage of cable. killing a number of people .158 Degrees Kelvin With thanks due in large part to Thomson. But by the time Field had organized a new Atlantic cabling voyage in 1865. Field had met Brunel on the train from Bristol to London.” It was getting the cable over the stern of the ship and safely down to the seabed that continued to pose the greatest difficulties. with drums and pulleys and tensioners. or even dangling it from an array of hot-air balloons to avoid the water altogether. saw his fondest creation moving under its own power. The most likely cause of electrical failure was damage to the fragile gutta percha insulation. A few days later there was a disastrous explosion. the vast. who had intended the vessel as a passenger and cargo ship that could travel from Britain to Australia on a single charge of coal. This was the Great Eastern. had ceased to be a major concern. and briefly. but not until September 1859 was the giant vessel floated. more important. Learning of Field’s project. Brunel being the builder of that track and the founder of the Great Western Railway Company. On one of his early trips to England.” he told Field. He suffered a stroke two days before the ship’s launch and. saw it begin sailing into the English Channel. to look forward to a time in the near future when “a submarine telegraph cable would be designed. partly recovered but feeble. even across the Atlantic. but improvements in the design and manufacture of iron outer coverings allowed Thomson. with the same prospect of success and permanency as a bridge. “There is your ship. before the first cabling attempt. onto the shallow waters of the Thames estuary.

a railway engineer turned magnate and former colleague of Brunel. He now struck a deal with Cyrus Field and the Atlantic Telegraph Company.” wrote one young man who worked a cabling voyage. F.000 agreeing to take shares in the new company. a small.000 of bonds for cash. and diagonal. Elliott with the Gutta Percha Company. vertical. intense. leaving a cavernous space that was divided into three enormous tanks suspended within the hull on massive timbers. and on one of the first occasions when it appeared they might make some money. the ship ran aground off Ireland. and giving an idea of almost unnecessary strength.” The delegation of cable-laying operations to Gooch’s company left Thomson and the other technical members of Field’s team in an awkward position. By 1864 the Great Eastern was idle. “Huge beams stretch in all directions.000 in ATC shares. in the hands of bondholders to the tune of just £100. combative man brought down. Daniel Gooch. incurring costly repairs. horizontal. Varley. in the words of a journalist. Brunel died on September 15. it was said. with his company bearing all operating costs and handing the cable over to Field only after a successful voyage. and the cost of repairs bankrupted its owners.CABLE 159 and destroying the forward funnel. The great ship limped on. all the trees of which have been roughly trimmed. Varley “was ordered by his board not even to give his advice if he were asked for it. joined with a few colleagues and bought the ship at auction by buying out £25. by a lifetime of financial struggles and commercial rivalries. with the holders of the other £75. an amalgamation of Glass.000—a ship that had cost more than £1 million to build. A few years later she was holed in Long Island sound. “It presents the appearance of a dead forest. he agreed to use the Great Eastern to lay an Atlantic cable. tiring the eye by their similarity and numbers. The owners had difficulty finding enough passengers and cargo to make the voyages profitable. a few days after being told of the tragedy. In return for £50. He was only 53. Gooch had not long before this become a director of the newly formed Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company. On the 1865 voyage. The chief electrician for Field was C. unless the de- . The Great Eastern plied fruitlessly back and forth across the Atlantic for a few years. The ornate ballrooms and luxurious cabins of Brunel’s great ship were stripped out.

The shock . In the gravest discussion they held no part. Soon after the expedition left Ireland on July 23. and in that case he was only to answer in writing. and into the sea. and who is certainly one of the most distinguished and acute physicists in the world. Conditions were not bad. the crew resumed their tasks. “What we had taken for assassination might have been suicide. and the mystery was solved. Without warning. and to insert in the written document a distinct declaration that the opinion given was not in any way to bind the company which he represented. and work was proceeding smoothly. . Then a little later an alert crewman saw. whose name is known over Europe. from core to exterior. The only way in which they could give utterance to their feelings was by asking questions. full of suggestions and ideas and formulas. the crew all swore their devotion to the project. Now there was talk of sabotage.” as one commentator put it. Professor W. through the paying-out machinery. 600 miles from Newfoundland. as the cable wound around one of the drums.” The 1865 attempt almost succeeded. spiked as it were. and the ship was brought to a halt to allow retrieval and repair. “steady as a Thames steamer. reduced to silence—two great guns. . the cable snapped and disappeared below the waves.160 Degrees Kelvin mand were made in writing. the rolling sea caused it to chafe gently against the ship’s side. . As the crew prepared to reel the last few miles of cable back in again. but he was not to depart from the course indicated by the board to his principal. The Great Eastern plodded serenely on through heavy seas. So there were two gentlemen. He removed it before it could do any damage. A splinter of sharp iron was found piercing the insulation. Splicing out the damaged section. when a slight change of the wind or an unusual swell made the ship heave momentarily in a different direction. the electricians detected a fault in the cable that had just gone overboard. About two-thirds of the way across. a splinter of brittle iron separate from the outer covering and lodge in the machinery. Thomson of Glasgow.” the cable unreeling smoothly over the stern. but charged to the muzzle. detection of another fault brought the ships to a halt. Under questioning. was admitted on board as a sort of scientific aide-de-camp to Mr Varley. Watchmen were posted to oversee the uncoiling of the cable from the holding tanks up onto the deck. Then a few days later exactly the same thing happened again.

Cabling crews had by this time learned to retrieve lost wires by dragging a grapple across the seabed.” Thomson said later. Con- . Anglo-American Telegraph.” The cable had shown no electrical problems. Announcements traveled down the wire to New York and London. only to find that their ropes and tackle were not strong enough to pull it all the way to the surface. After this “sad and dreadful discouragement . Field started up yet another company. This they would be sure to do next time.500 fathoms down. The paying-out machinery had worked well.” he wrote. For legal and financial reasons.CABLE 161 was abrupt and stunning. You are not come too soon as the [Atlantic Telegraph Company] seems to require your impulse and I am sure will be much the better for your presence. which he quickly floated for £600. they lost hundred of fathoms of it. our faces could not have worn a more down cast expression. On the morning of July 28 the tiny fishing village of Heart’s Content came into view. when the enterprise of 1865 was finally seen to be a failure that the rest of us wished to go to bed and sleep in discouragement after the labors of a fortnight. and more of it. Field only briefly returned to the United States before coming to Britain again at the beginning of 1866.000. Apart from a stoppage to unravel a tangled section of cable. But Field would not sleep until he had the prospectus elaborated which led to success. . The attempt could have been successful had the planners thought to include stronger lines for picking up the lost cable. The cable end was landed and hooked up. in some of the deepest waters of the Atlantic Ocean. they grappled four times and hooked up the cable on three occasions.” Daniel Gooch wrote later. . a foggy as well as inauspicious day. July 13. but the lost cable of 1865 lay 2. Thomson and the others on the Great Eastern having maintained unbroken contact with Valentia. Nevertheless. we were all dispirited in a sense. and finally did not have enough to make another attempt. the Great Eastern set off once again from Ireland. “I will never forget this hour or the effect it had upon all engaged. to Thomson’s great relief. Had we been one family and just lost a dear father or mother. On Friday. but not discouraged. “I am very pleased to learn that you are again in this country. They had to give up because every time the grappling line broke. the voyage proceeded uneventfully. “I remember well a night in the cabin of the Great Eastern.

in money and technology and ships. Old shares of the Atlantic Telegraph Company finally began to pay dividends. The British. There was little of the wild exuberance that had broken out in 1858. took several more. Dropping a line to the seabed took two hours. because of his close ties to Britain and Britain’s unconcealed support for the south during the Civil War. The Atlantic cable had become almost entirely a British project. and so profitable was this business that by the mid-1880s a dozen cables crossed the Atlantic Ocean. seemed more excited than the Americans. Letters from lawyers and patent agents in subsequent years reveal sums of hundreds or a few thousands of . except for the essential presence of Cyrus Field—who. only a few years. After just a few days the flotilla headed to sea again in an attempt to pick up and complete the 1865 cable. attracted some criticism and dissent in American newspapers for an excess of anglophilia. hauling it up again. Thomson. and commercial telegraphy began in earnest. But by then there was a cable from France to Newfoundland. both had failed forever. Still it took weeks for the plan to succeed. started earning money from the licensing of his patents for the mirror galvanometer. By late 1870. all now part of a seamless telegraph network. International telegraphy was not exactly routine. Egypt. Back in Valentia. the lost cable end was dragged aboard the Great Eastern early on the morning of September 2 and hooked up to the electrical room. in fact. who had traveled on five cabling voyages to Newfoundland and back without direct payment. and cheers erupted in Ireland and in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean as messages of confirmation passed back and forth. The cables of 1865 and 1866 lasted. Now there were two transatlantic lines. His expertise was rewarded with contracts to advise on other cable projects around the world.162 Degrees Kelvin gratulations pulsed in from San Francisco and Alexandria. Thomson and some of the other engineers had devised a plan by which three ships would drag for the cable and pull it up part way to the surface. with or without a cable at the end. After a number of excruciating near successes. distributing the immense weight on three grappling lines. this time. which all telegraph operators used. and places in between. operators at length noticed the flickering light of a mirror galvanometer on the long-dead cable. but it lacked the immediacy and novelty it had possessed eight years earlier.

the technology of the telegraph was science in action. Thomson became Sir William Thomson. With the pioneer days of global telegraphy coming to an end. there came public recognition and official honor. He had no interest in becoming a financial magnate. There was nothing lowly or shameful about it. a pure entrepreneur. is high science more intelligently appreciated and ably applied than in the manufacture and use of telegraphic lines. He could pass from one to the other and back again without feeling he had transgressed any intellectual boundaries. in honor of his extended efforts in bringing the transatlantic cable to reality. which had led him to the foundations of thermodynamics. To his colleagues in the academic world. Thomson’s interest naturally reverted to old concerns and brushed up against new ones. As well as wealth. it might have seemed that he had abandoned his true calling. indeed.CABLE 163 pounds coming to Thomson in license fees for patents he owned outright or shared with men such as Jenkin and Varley—this at a time when £200 a year was a substantial middle-class income. Speaking in 1874 as president of the Society of Telegraph Engineers he declared that “in no other branch of engineering. . At the age of 42.” Thomson saw no fundamental distinction between his scientific analysis of undersea cables and his earlier analysis of Carnot’s heat engine. but so far as Sir William was concerned.

Going back in time.4 CONTROVERSIES A fter electing William Thomson to the Glasgow chair of natural philosophy in 1846. ironing out temperature variations until a state of uniformity emerged. an unphysical. 164 . Mathematically. Physically. heat gradients would become infinite or the temperature indeterminate. directed him to prepare and read a dissertation in Latin on the subject “De caloris distributione per terrae corpus”—the distribution of heat within the earth. No doubt he or his father put a word in someone’s ear. impermissible pattern. heat distributions necessarily became less uniform. Thomson proved in 1842 that extrapolating a plausible heat distribution backward in time would in general produce. therefore. By marvelous coincidence. From some initial distribution of temperature within a solid body. this was a subject close to Thomson’s heart. Thomson had shown that Fourier’s theory of heat flow implied a fundamental difference between past and future. The dissertation met with the faculty’s entire satisfaction. In one of his dozen undergraduate publications. as part of the formal admission procedure. the faculty. the solution to the equations became discontinuous or double-valued or otherwise pathological. at some point. The question it addressed haunted Thomson until the end of his life. heat would flow inexorably as time marched on.

1This . he showed that it could not have an unlimited past. Without further ado he concluded that the energy of the sun was “undoubtedly meteoric” in origin. In this case. added to the sun every year. Thomson calculated that about 10 pounds per hour (not quite 100 tons per year) of infalling material could supply enough energy to generate the sun’s heat. One or two scientists had suggested that a stream of meteors falling constantly on the sun’s surface could provide a sufficient source of energy to account for the output of heat. This idea owed something to Joule’s experimental demonstration that the energy of a falling body could turn into heat. etc. By the mid-1850s he had begun to think about a closely related problem: the origin of the sun’s heat. radio waves. Thomson applied his reasoning in 1844 specifically to the case of the earth. This was a novel and striking conclusion. Characteristically. Regarding it simply as a cooling body with no internal source of heat. he developed this argument further. From the known distance of the sun to the earth.CONTROVERSIES 165 Following up this insight.) and heat received at the earth’s surface is a poor measure of solar heat because a good deal is reflected. Taking up this idea in 1854. Among other things he explained how careful measurement of heat loss from the earth’s surface could in principle yield estimates of the age of the earth. Thomson could not know either of these things at the time. calculations could be attempted. The sun produces considerable energy in forms other than direct heat (light. ultraviolet. In his 1846 dissertation to the Glasgow faculty. he asserted.1 This mass. and from estimates of the candle power of the sun’s heat at the earth’s surface. it could not appear out of nothing. would not perceptibly increase its size on the sky even over millions of years. is a serious underestimate for at least two reasons. but Thomson had no data to apply to the problem. and left the question as one of many that he would pick up again when the time was ripe. This energy must come from somewhere. or else energy was coming into the sun by some other means so that it could continuously pump out heat at a prodigious rate with no net loss. he would not take the matter further until he could find something quantitative to say about the earth’s age. which it was gradually using up. a rough idea could be obtained of the total amount of heat—now understood as a form of energy—produced by the sun every second. Either the sun had some initial reserve.

000 years. Leverrier’s careful observations set precise limits on the extent to which Mercury’s orbit changed from year to year and forced the conclusion that. And if the meteors all spiraled in at the sun’s equator. friction (which generated heat) would significantly slow the sun’s rotation in as little as 32. Contrary to appearances. this was not good news for the meteor theory. it would have cooled very rapidly early on and could not possibly maintain its current temperature even for centuries. those meteors would have to be contained within the orbit of Mercury from the outset. As the meteors slowed down in the sun’s outer atmosphere. . who came up with a related difficulty. and drifting inward in an orderly manner over perhaps millions of years. Not long after his first pronouncements on solar heat. In 1859 the French astronomer Urbain Leverrier announced that he had detected a tiny drift in the orientation of Mercury’s slightly elliptical orbit. which was surely not possible.166 Degrees Kelvin He had second thoughts. as soon as he had delivered the first version of this paper to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in April. the orbits of those planets would change as the mass of the sun increased. though. Thomson became entangled with the Atlantic cable project and made no further progress for some years. A series of footnotes added in May brought out a number of difficulties. This proved to be a fatal problem. He had satisfied himself that any conceivable chemical reactions would be too feeble to supply enough energy and that if the sun had been endowed at birth with some quantity of heat. which had been leaking passively away ever since. If the mass added to the sun in the form of meteors came originally from beyond earth’s orbit. let alone millennia or longer. He calculated it would have shortened by a month and a half since the beginning of the Christian era. if a supply of meteors was to produce the sun’s heat. To have such a large mass of hidden material hanging about so close to the sun. And the meteor theory had run into all kinds of difficulties. then the increased gravity would change the orbit and thus change the length of the year. was unfeasible for both theoretical and observational reasons. If meteors drifted toward the sun from beyond Mercury and Venus. how would a uniform glow arise across the whole body? Thomson was by this time in the habit of discussing his scientific proposals in his extensive correspondence with Stokes.

The details of the transformation were unimportant. Thomson applied his analytical powers—and. When the British Association met in Glasgow in 1855. he had noticed and pondered the warm water bubbling up from underground. Helmholtz argued. a journal of general interest. D. his Edinburgh colleague J. once again. On his summer trips to Kreuznach. It was well known that coal mines were hotter at greater depths. As numerous bodies. which had to emerge as heat in the end. but Thomson wanted to know how fast the temperature increased with the descent. Thomson at first put this idea aside because he thought the initial charge of heat would dissipate very quickly. took up an idea originally due to Helmholtz. Thomson concluded that slow gravitational contraction could keep the sun in roughly its present state for a period of at least 20 million years. This was the power of thermodynamic argument: Shrinking released gravitational energy. perhaps as much as 100 million. Thomson got hold of data on heat loss from the earth. which allowed him to obtain numerical estimates of the planet’s age from the methods he had proposed long ago. for his wife’s health. they would gather with increasing speed. came together under their own gravitational attraction. his acute understanding of Fourier’s methods—to estimate from these measurements . originally scattered far and wide. in what was becoming his standard scavenging style. Thus.CONTROVERSIES 167 During the hiatus between the first and second series of transatlantic ventures. originally cold matter spread over a large volume of space could create a single condensed hot body. and as the bodies finally coalesced that kinetic energy would turn into heat. who had suggested that the sun was born through the coagulation of countless small meteors and other rocky bodies into a single gigantic sphere. Forbes began measuring temperatures at a range of depths in local rock formations. during 1859 and 1860. In an essay published in 1862 in Macmillan’s Magazine. but certainly not as much as 500 million years. Thomson had urged official endorsement of a program of measurements to establish the gradient of temperature with depth underground. At about the same time. With Thomson’s encouragement. Thomson. But he came to see that continuing slow contraction of the sun under its own immense gravity would convert gravitational energy into heat in a gradual manner.

Erosion of rocks by wind or water was understood as a slow processe that shaped the planet’s topography. or catastrophic change in the earth’s past. By tacit implication they also believed that the earth’s past was infinite. or at any rate as long as it needed to be. In other words. Thomson’s annoyance is against the geologists’ embrace of unsound science. on April 28. In the mid-1800s most geologists held to some version of a general philosophy by the name of uniformitarianism. so that the planet had never looked qualitatively different. however. as the subject itself only came into being around 1850. His opening sentence plainly declared a broader and fiercer intent: “For eighteen years it has pressed on my mind. As a corollary. and his inferences about the planet’s age. This explains Thomson’s reference to those who opposed what he called “paroxysmal hypotheses. according to which geological change on and within the earth was going on today at the same rate it had always gone on. that essential principles of Thermo-dynamics have been overlooked by those geologists who uncompromisingly oppose all paroxysmal hypotheses. geologists also rejected the possibility that there had been eras of abrupt. “Eighteen years” refers to the 1844 publication of his first thoughts on heat loss from the earth. of all the different actions by which its crust has been modified in geological history. But to say that for all this time he had been distressed at geologists’ ignorance of thermodynamics was a mite unfair.” His argument was simple. Finally. so geologists accepted that the earth had not always looked precisely the same as it happened to look in 1862. 1862.168 Degrees Kelvin the heat conductivity of the rocks and thus the rate at which heat from the earth’s interior was flowing outward at the surface. Thomson read to the Royal Society of Edinburgh his account of heat flow from the earth. But broadly speaking they believed that change was slow. This is mere rhetoric. on the earth. Physics. It simply could not have existed for the amount of time . dictated that a cooling earth must have a finite age. been more violent in the past than they are at present. and maintain not only that we have examples now before us. geologists felt able to draw on an immeasurable account of time past in order to explain how slow processes had produced the modern world. or have not on the whole. violent. particularly the new science of thermodynamics.” Thomson began here with a characteristic revisionist flourish. but that these actions have never.

000. sitting in empty and absolutely cold space. Nevertheless. “It is impossible. .CONTROVERSIES 169 that geologists complacently assumed. Thomson estimated. from Forbes’s data. For the initial temperature.” Geologists had not altogether ignored this problem. particularly concerning the physical state of rock in the earth’s interior and its heat conductivity and capacity at high temperature and pressure. at the same temperature throughout. so the cycle could start over again. This proposal Thomson contemptuously but accurately dismissed as a kind of perpetual motion machine. was discovered in 1821). had tried to explain the earth’s heat by proposing a thermo-electric-chemical mechanism in the interior. which he got from estimates of the melting point of a variety of igneous rocks. that even the greatest of geologists were innocent of the laws of thermodynamics.” Thomson declared in his 1862 article. and simple application of Fourier’s method yielded a formula for the surface temperature gradient as a function of elapsed time. which would in turn generate electric currents (thermoelectricity. Forbes found that the earth’s temperature rose by about 1° Fahrenheit for every 50 feet of depth. Therefore. a planetary age of between 20 million and 400 million years. As heat flowed away from the surface. Chemical reactions were supposed to generate heat. those processes must have at some time worked significantly faster than they did at present. a temperature gradient would develop in the interior. allowing some reasonable latitude in such parameters. and life on it would have been impossible. if the present appearance of the planet was to be explained as the result of natural processes. Thomson assumed that the earth had long ago been a uniform sphere. were it needed.000 years. then at some point it must have been molten. Thomson chose 7. capable of generating heat yet returning to its starting conditions unchanged—further proof. by which junctions of certain dissimilar metals generate electricity when heated. There were numerous assumptions and uncertainties in this calculation. whose 1830 Principles of Geology was a bible of uniformitarianism. and this electricity would then dissociate the compounds formed in the original reaction. Charles Lyell. can be wholly true. “that hypotheses assuming an equability of sun and storms for 1.000°F. If the earth was hotter in the past. A molten earth certainly wouldn’t look anything like the earth today.

The Weald was about 300 million years old. In one of the lesser parts of his revolutionary treatise. he reckoned. a sedimentary rock formation in the southeastern corner of England where Darwin had settled after his strenuous travels on the Beagle. Darwin did not much discuss the amount of time he thought the process of evolution required. whose Origin of Species appeared in 1859. but admitted defeat on this instance. Darwin felt no unease at assuming much longer periods for the earth as a whole. however. The solar system—at least one containing a warm sun and a habitable earth—was around 100 million years old. Thomson’s arguments about the age of the earth had produced little change among geologists. Thomson took a swipe at Darwin’s presumptuousness. Darwin undertook the ill-advised task of estimating. Darwin still wanted a long time for evolutionary history. This was all the geologists could have. Even so. This minor error of Darwin’s forever after colored Thomson’s view of the man and his theories. however.” By that time. but he recognized in a qualitative way that it was a slow business and leaned toward Lyell’s view of an essentially infinite past. In his 1862 paper on the age of the sun. they came out compellingly similar to the numbers Thomson had produced for the age of the sun. the age of the Weald. from geological analyses of rates of deposition and weathering. in the person of Charles Darwin. Even by the mid-1860s. who were not quantitative scientists in the modern way. Darwin’s book had gone through several editions in the course of which discussion of the age of the Weald had been quietly shelved. He was onto something. Adding to Thomson’s irritation was the incursion of biology into his subject.170 Degrees Kelvin A certain amount of educated guesswork went into these numbers. It disturbed him that his . and he showed in any case that even within its limited scope it wasn’t a very astute calculation. Five years later Thomson’s friend Fleeming Jenkin wrote a long review of the Origin of Species and dismissed Darwin’s attempt at quantitative geology as a calculation of the kind engineers refer to as “guess at the half and multiply by two. The Weald estimate rested on the uniformitarian assumption that present rates of erosion were unchanging throughout geological history. and if so modest a geological feature had so great an age. It was all physics would give them.

A close observer would discover that this man talked to himself a great deal as he went—didn’t talk. no matter how hard Thomson pressed it. He knew by heart considerable stretches of Greek and Latin verse and for reasons known only to himself found declamations from Horace or Homer the ideal accompaniment to solo golf. Ramsay responded as if this point of physics had nothing to do with him: “I am as incapable of estimating and understanding the reasons which you physicists have for limiting geological time as you are incapable of understanding the geological reasons for our unlimited estimates. that physics was physics and geology was geology and never the twain shall meet. a tall. It took some time for this elementary point to be appreciated. getting in a round before his colleagues were up and about. marching determinedly around the windswept links of the venerable golf course at St. being a finite body. could not possibly shine forever. So far as he was concerned. . but sang or recited or chanted. if the weather was even halfway decent. In 1867. the habit of switching off one’s mind as soon as mathematics was mentioned. for the life of the sun. Thomson was not telling geologists how to conduct their science. Every year from 1868 until the close of the century. so that he was ready to join them for a second round when they were blearily beginning their first. rather. only that their theorizing could not disregard the laws of thermodynamics. Thomson accosted the geologist Andrew Ramsay. Andrews. 10 billion if necessary. On a good day he could squeeze in five rounds of 18 holes before twilight stopped him. rugged man was generally to be found at half past six on these summer mornings. who professed he could happily contemplate 1 billion years. whacking and walloping a golf ball as he went.CONTROVERSIES 171 rock-solid thermodynamic arguments were blatantly ignored on the grounds.” It was another example of what he called aphasia. *** On the east coast of Scotland in July and August. when the British Association met at Dundee.” Thomson rejoined that “you can understand physicists’ reasoning perfectly if you give your mind to it. it seemed. He was frequently on his own. Thomson objected that the sun. daylight comes early and leaves late. When the classics palled.

when they flashed round the room he seemed to have drawn a rapier. and went on to the next one. I have seen a man fall back in alarm under Tait’s eyes. born and raised in Edinburgh. was Peter Guthrie Tait. with thick beard and high forehead. Tait. Like Thomson. professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. he had enthusiastically embraced the new style of mathematical physics that was coming of age as he acquired an education. Barrie. Nothing gave him more joy than a fierce dispute.” On the links at St. hit it firmly. setting as it did the hard principles of mathematical science against the lax and ignorant speculations of geologists. he could concentrate them until they held the object looked at. beautiful soup. Through the late 2Lewis Carroll mimicked the same song in the Lobster Quadrille: “Soup of the evening. when Forbes retired. modeled on the popular ditty “Star of the Evening”:2 Beautiful Round! Superbly played— Round where never mistake is made. This man. recalled Tait’s fearsomeness in the lecture room: “The small twinkling eyes had a fascinating gleam in them. Who with enchantment would not bound For the round of the morning. Beautiful Round? and so on for nine verses. J. Never was the title more appropriately bestowed. Tait golfed with speed and determination and nary a second thought. he picked a shot. though there were a dozen benches between them. he embraced the principle of energy conservation not merely as a law of physics but as a foundation stone to all of science. The argument over the age of the earth suited him perfectly. He had taken up the position in 1860. the author of Peter Pan and a former Edinburgh student. M.” . Andrews. He wrote mathematics and physics the same way. Seven years younger than William Thomson. six feet two and a half inches in his boots.172 Degrees Kelvin he tried a song of his own devising. had been senior wrangler at Cambridge in 1852. and he would turn even small points of scientific disagreement into full-blown wrangles if he could find a way.

“On Geological Time. through friction. though not for almost a year later and . we cannot estimate more on any probable hypothesis. He returned in conclusion to his original arguments about energy loss from the sun and the earth.CONTROVERSIES 173 1860s. flattened at the poles and bulging at the equator. . At the end of 1865 he had read to the Royal Society of Edinburgh a short paper. “The ‘Doctrine of Uniformity’ in Geology Briefly Refuted. Imagine it as we please.” Brief refutation indeed: Geologists assumed an infinite past. to shine on and give out heat for ever. He claimed to get a limit on the age of the earth consistent with his other calculations. Making quantitative use of this undoubted fact was tricky. I must say at the same time that I consider one hundred millions as being a few. When I say a few millions. Thomson finally drew a response. “Now. a frustrated Thomson had repeated his charge against uniformitarianism. would slow the earth’s rotation. This remonstration drew little response. . If it then solidified and remained rigid that original figure would stay the same.” Once again he talked of the cooling of the earth and of the impossibility of the sun shining forever. physics dictated it must be finite. we must suppose it to be a body subject to the laws of matter. Thomson reasoned that if the earth was originally molten and spinning. which he regarded as unanswerable. This was further demonstration that the uniformitarian assumption must be mistaken.” delivered to the Geological Society of Glasgow. . more complex argument. He presented once again his proof that the earth must have been molten around 20 million years ago. if the sun is not created a miraculous body. He tried out a new. He began bluntly: “A great reform in geological speculation seems now to have become necessary. with little perceptible effect. In February 1868 he tried again with a lecture. From measurements of the known departure of the planet from strict spherical form.” He would concede 100 million years but drew the line at 500 million. than a few million years of heat. Thomson hoped to deduce the original rate of rotation when it was born and use estimates of tidal friction to calculate how long it would take to slow down to the present rate of rotation. it would have assumed a slight nonspherical shape. which he said he had first heard from his brother James. once every 24 hours. Perhaps because he at last spoke directly to an audience of geologists. though it seemed to go back ultimately to the observation by Kant that ocean tides.

when he famously declared that if he could choose his ancestors he would take an ape over the bishop. He mentioned Thomson’s limit of 100 million years and asked rhetorically whether any geologist had ever wanted more than this. Huxley asserted. . the sun may be waxing dim . I suspect. . . true or fictitious. Huxley had earned the sobriquet “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his tenacious debating on behalf of evolutionary theory. . the chief ruler of the synagogue. he noted ruefully. . “The rotation of the earth may be diminishing. . This was a little slick. refused to try Paul for alleged breaches of Jewish law “for I will be no judge of such matters.’ being of the opinion that. like an odious spectre. Huxley thought of himself as a generalist and an orator. since Darwin himself had wanted 300 million years for the age of the Weald. .174 Degrees Kelvin not from a scientist intimately associated with geological thinking. a Roman deputy. In letters to colleagues Darwin confided that “Thomson’s views of the recent age of the world have been for some time one of my sorest troubles” and when thinking of the long periods of time evolution required. . and he resorted more than once to meaningless bluster. For all his eloquence. “then comes Sir W. And Gallio cared for . It was Thomson’s complaint about Darwin rather than uniformitarianism that mostly captured Huxley’s attention. Most of us. particularly in his contest with Bishop “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce at the 1860 British Association meeting in Oxford. Huxley was out of his depth in dealing with mathematical physics and the laws of thermodynamics. Thomas H. He seized on Thomson’s changing theories of the origin of the sun’s heat and on admitted uncertainties in estimates of the age to suggest that the physical arguments were not nearly as secure as Thomson claimed. Thomson. but his first interest remained the biological sciences.”3 Not unlike Whitehouse when 3Gallio. the earth itself may be cooling. during the period of which a record is preserved in stratified deposits. though that number was no longer mentioned. ‘who care for none of these things. are Gallios.” In February 1869 Huxley used his presidential address to the London Geological Society to take up Thomson’s challenge directly and defend the honor of the geologists and the biologists. Then all the Greeks took Sosthenes. they have made no practical difference to the earth. hewed to the strict uniformitarian line anymore. and beat him before the judgment seat. He explained that in any case Thomson was fighting a straw man: No modern geologist. however.

in any way. . not as a mere passer-by. as matters quite foreign to their ordinary pursuits. he responded in April at the Geological Society of Glasgow. Tait none of these things” (Acts 18:15-17). He had nothing new to say scientifically but bristled at Huxley’s accusation of meddling: “I cannot pass from Professor Huxley’s last sentence without asking. belief in the possible infiniteness of the past still existed.” Into this more or less gentlemanly contest the rumbustious Professor Tait now inserted himself. Huxley hinted that niceties of academic theory were somehow inapplicable to the practical world of geology and biology. presumably. For myself. along with some other contributions. I am anxious to be regarded by geologists. but as one constantly interested in their grand subject. And the critical examination of the grounds upon which the very grave charge of opposition to the principles of Natural Philosophy has been brought against us rather shows that we have exercised a wise discrimination in declining to meddle with our foundations at the bidding of the first passer-by who fancies our house is not so well built as it might be. and their application to terrestrial physics. but he took no position. . Meaning. In a lengthy review of the addresses by Thomson and Huxley. and anxious. Huxley was content to see other parties duke it out over the application of physical laws to the earth. however slight. lamenting once again that “so many geologists are contented to regard the general principles of natural philosophy. of underground temperature. inasmuch as we have long been reforming from within with all needful speed.” At last Thomson had an opponent willing to speak out.’ and who is the ‘passer-by’? Is geology not a branch of physical science? Are investigations experimental and mathematical. is superfluous.CONTROVERSIES 175 attacking Thomson’s theory of the submarine telegraph. in some quarters anyway. not to be regarded as an integral part of geology? . to assist them in their search for truth. Who are the occupants of ‘our house. The cry for reform which has been raised without. Reading of Huxley’s dismissal of the case. He concluded with a fine flourish: “I speak with more than the sincerity of a mere advocate when I express the belief that the case against has entirely broken down. .” He dredged up remarks from a number of recent geological writings to show that.

but when perused with attention it is found to be seriously illogical.” Huxley’s address. Huxley even seemed to think that the 100 million years Thomson would allow was not so bad. according to Tait. with better experimental data. He faulted Thomson only for responding in “the mildest and meekest spirit” to Huxley’s charges. dashing. Tait closed his review of the subject by tightening the screws further: “In truth. this. giving its full weight to each of the separate details. rather let them be lauded for condescending from their proud preeminence to help out of a rut the too ponderous waggon of some scientific brother.” He noted that geologists varied widely in the length of the past they desired. . . To Huxley’s suggestion that application of mathematical methods to geology was somehow inappropriate. as opposed to the clear-eyed facts that Thomson had set before them.” Tait had no such reservations. and that it is not unlikely that.” . “weakens. . not his cause but. cannot be usefully introduced until we have arrived at something a little beyond what may be called the mere ‘beetle-hunting’ or ‘crab-catching’ stage. Let us then hear no more nonsense about the interference of mathematicians in matters with which they have no concern. this period may be still farther reduced. the interference of the police at once reconciles the hostile factions into one great brotherhood. he responded scornfully: “Mathematics . But then.176 Degrees Kelvin marched in with all the unsubtlety he could muster. Tait wondered. we find that we may. when we come to examine the question as a whole. why did Huxley side against Thomson with those geologists who persisted in thinking the past infinite? He had a nice answer: “As we have but too lately seen. .” From time to time Tait paused to inject a compliment toward Huxley as one of the foremost men of his discipline. . but these pleasantries only served to introduce further insults and charges of scientific ignorance. Tait feared. was “clever. with considerable probability. his chance of a hearing by not sufficiently showing his teeth. Having laid waste to the foolish and insupportable beliefs of geologists and biologists. when two Irish mobs are engaged in the sweet pastime of murdering one another. and plausible. say that Natural Philosophy already points to a period of some ten or fifteen millions of years as all that can be allowed for the purposes of the geologist and paleontologist.

A few years later. And his judgment that new data.” If geologists found this irksome “so much the worse for geology. *** This was not the first time Tait had taken up the cudgels on behalf of his excessively polite friend Thomson. in lectures intended for a general audience. Tait succeeded in making the battle fierce and uncompromising.” Plenty of geologists could see that Tait’s vehemence was mostly hot air—Darwin thought his views “monstrous”—but they lacked the mathematical and physical skill to take him on. yet he never clearly dissociated himself from his friend Tait’s opinion that anything more than 15 million years was “utterly impossible. which was greatly to his liking. was a period of time the geologists could work with. Thomson himself never insisted on an age unequivocally less than 100 million years. apart from his eagerness to make life uncomfortable for the geologists. perhaps. and his allowance of 100 million years generous. For neither of these extreme assumptions did he have any good grounds. Thomson’s admonitions began to seem reasonable. using an exaggerated version of the tidal friction argument in which he assumed that the earth solidified instantly when it had cooled sufficiently and remained absolutely rigid thereafter. He had no reason to say 10 million years rather than 100 million. but his strategy in the end backfired. . would most likely reduce the number further is as pure a piece of illogic as anything he criticized in Huxley. That. [P]hysical considerations from various independent points of view render it utterly impossible that more than ten or fifteen millions of years can be granted.” Tait even managed to suggest that 10 million years might be generous. Tait reiterated his severe views: “We cannot give more scope for [geologists’] speculation than about ten or (say at most) fifteen millions of years. . If Huxley was Darwin’s bulldog. Compared to Tait’s shrill prosecutions. In 1862 the two had written an . as yet unknown. Tait was aiming to be Thomson’s terrier. Having thoroughly castigated Huxley and the rest for offering hopeful opinions instead of mathematically precise arguments. but they produced a small age and that was recommendation enough. Tait finished with an embellishment of Thomson’s reasoning drawn from thin air.CONTROVERSIES 177 Now this was remarkable. .

Writing to Thomson in December 1848. This is disagreeable to me as it has involved the necessity of writing in reply to the Comptes Rendus [the journal of the French Academy of Sciences] but I will not be drawn into a controversy on the subject of priority beyond one rejoinder. gave a public lecture in which he reiterated Mayer’s claim and hinted that credit was not being given because Mayer was both a foreigner and an outsider. which was edited by Thomson’s friend the Reverend Norman Macleod. Faraday’s assistant at the Royal Institution.178 Degrees Kelvin article entitled “Energy” for the magazine Good Words. Ostensibly the authors wished to bring to a general audience the new and essential scientific concept of energy. and there the matter rested. 1862.” A modest and unassuming man. This allegation had come up before. no one else weighed in. The merit will belong to all those who have worked out the doctrine. Joule had mentioned that “a German of the name of Mayer has set up a claim for the discovery of the equivalent upon the ground that he asserted in 1842 that the heat produced by compressing air was the equivalent to the force employed although he made no experiments to prove it. and by extension credit for what had become the general law of energy conservation. that is. should go not to Thomson’s close friend Joule but to an obscure German physician by the name of Julius Robert Mayer. whatever it may be. Until June 6. Joule. when John Tyndall. had done numerous experiments to demonstrate the equivalence. but what impelled them to put pen to paper was an article published earlier that year arguing that credit for demonstrating the equivalence of mechanical work and heat. painstakingly. not part of the inner . “I have not pursued the controversy further because the facts are before the scientific world and I shall be perfectly satisfied with its verdict. As he explained to Thomson. he had offered no empirical evidence to back up the assertion.” Mayer responded in turn to Joule. I do not want to monopolize. The Comptes Rendus published a handful of brief communications. and I hope I have said nothing which may be thought acrimonious or unfair. who refused to be drawn. and as he said in another letter to Thomson. his view was that while Mayer had undoubtedly proposed an equivalence between mechanical work and heat.” Joule’s reticence had the desired effect. Joule told Thomson: “I have not the slightest wish to detract from Mayer’s real merits.

Tyndall had a habit of contentiousness. a permanent sense of grievance against privilege and establishment. it would seem. By 1847 railway mania was collapsing. publishing experimental researches mainly in the Philosophical Magazine. In 1853 he gave a successful popular lecture at the Royal Institution. .” he recorded in his diary. . for obscure reasons. Like Tait. you should not have taught me to be honest. Germany. fired with youthful passion for the underdog. as honesty and truth have been my guiding light in this transaction. “I am not stubborn. to study with the chemist Robert Bunsen. had disinherited his father out of some modest property in County Carlow. and Tyndall found a position as a teacher at Queenwood. If I be wrong. The lecture appeared a little later in the Philosophical Magazine. . Huxley. For a few years he bounced from one railway job to another. There Tyndall discovered a talent for teaching and an appetite for science. but maintaining close ties also with the German academic world.” He was 23 at the time. getting to know Faraday. leaving the younger Tyndalls to fend for themselves and bestowing on John.CONTROVERSIES 179 circle of reputable scientists. He got himself sacked for protesting about pay and conditions on behalf of the junior employees. where it came to the attention of Thomson and Tait. and at the urging of one of his fellow teachers went to the University of Marburg. Ireland. “I suffer in a righteous cause. but what do you want me to do? Is it to unsay what I have said? I have said nothing but the truth. Shall I crawl like a guilty reptile to the knees of Captain Tucker and stain my conscience with a falsehood by telling that I am sorry for what I have done? . Over the next several years he shuttled between England and Germany. an educational institution for workers founded by the socialist pioneer Robert Owen. and when his father suggested he might be wise to moderate his passions he shot back. south of Dublin. Learning mathematics from the books of Professor James Thomson. His grandfather. more than once losing a position amid the numerous legal disputes that raged between companies seeking regional rights and monopolies. Tyndall found work as a surveyor first in Ireland and then in England in the railway boom of the early 1840s. a Quaker school in southern England that had started life as Harmony Hall. and a few other London luminaries.

Tyndall’s enemies may have seen this as a piece of rough justice. writing. tending to throw out qualitative ideas on general grounds rather than work out fine details. He made a few modest experimental discoveries but was by no means a remarkable or original scientist. usually on behalf of continental scientists whose work was unknown or ignored in Britain. Some saw him as an opportunist and selfpromoter. and for good measure told the assembled scientists that the theory of solar prominences advanced by their countryman Charles Piazzi Smyth had been enunciated earlier by the German astronomer Feilitzsch. Later that year he won permanent appointment to the Royal Institution and remained there the rest of his life. Tyndall scraped together a living from his modest salary. and Tyndall angrily withdrew his name rather than be the subject of back-room bickering. at the British Association meeting in Belfast. and translating. In 1853 Tyndall was told informally he would be awarded one of the Royal Society’s annual research medals. leaving the public to suppose that he had been misconstrued or misapprehended. and a few years later he had come around to an interpretation more in line with Faraday’s thinking. who likewise contributed more to science as a disseminator and interpreter than as an innovator. Thomson has in fact backed out of every position he has assumed in regard to the phenomena of diamagnetism and magne-crystallic action. Thomson’s ideas on magnetism were evolving during this period. which tact may generally increase his reputation with the general public. . along with fees for lecturing. Tyndall recorded in his diary the dim view he took of this: “Thomson completely backed out of the position which he had assumed in Belfast. since Tyndall had already started to make a name for himself as a man eager to engage in priority battles. In 1852. but also publicly criticized William Thomson’s theoretical opinions on the subject. but several fellows grumbled that other scientists had greater claims to priority.180 Degrees Kelvin earning an invitation to give four more at £5 each. In later years he wrote books that brought in extra income. and completely disowned the interpretation of his own views as stated in Faraday’s lecture. though he had an ally in Huxley. he made a favorable impression with an account of his recent work on the magnetic properties of certain crystals. And he has done so.

was Thomson’s habit of speaking as if his earlier views belonged to some forgotten and unimportant era. was the first time Clausius had bothered to look closely at Mayer’s writings. Faraday had begun a series of Friday evening public lectures at the Royal Institution.—for he never pays full attention to anything. at any rate. . so that what he hears gets mixed with what he thinks.” Thomson could change his mind. .CONTROVERSIES 181 but in the private opinion of me at least does not add a whit to his nobleness. recasting these bits and pieces into a finished theory. Any good scientist must abandon old and incorrect ideas in favor of new and better ones. then talking as if he had come up with the whole thing himself. but Tait. . but the concepts were little appreciated or understood in the world at large. which served both to bring scientific innovation to a larger audience and to bring money to the struggling institution. . or hinting that the erroneous ideas he once held were not genuinely wrong but merely inarticulate stumblings toward the more sophisticated opinions he now embraced. He was. who had on occasion seen his own suggestions to Thomson bounced back at him later as Thomson’s own.” Tait wrote. continued the tradition and in 1862 decided to discourse on heat.” In 1825. who like Faraday was a lively lecturer and demonstrator of scientific experiments. he is always also thinking on something else. Tyndall. Tyndall’s closest friend described him as sometimes “peremptory. and what he hears. He enjoys an intellectual fence for its own sake. abrupt and dogmatic. What rankled with Tyndall. was primed for battle when the question of Mayer’s priority came to his attention. energy. “There is no doubt that he cannot distinguish between what he thinks. and Clausius sent a bundle of papers. This. interpreted his friend’s character benignly. he wrote to Tyndall.” Tyndall. Thomson had a way of picking up all manner of ideas and hints from whatever he read and whomever he spoke to. Tyndall asked Clausius for advice on the origins of the modern theory. including Mayer’s as well as his own contributions. it seems. and he takes it for his own. Tyndall saw dishonesty in this. though. Understanding of heat. of course. and I am not sure that his own dexterity in inflicting sharp lashes is not a source of amusement to him. and mechanical work had revolutionized science thoroughly. Worse. He is a “most absolutely honest man.

Without external stimulus. in 1843.182 Degrees Kelvin “astonished at the multitude of beautiful and correct thoughts they contain. named Mayer. and of the further equivalence of heat to all these phenomena. Mayer had concluded with an estimate of the mechanical equivalent of heat—the number that Joule had worked so hard to find out and which he had first published a year later. “To whom. electrical. gravitational.” Tyndall went on to mention Joule’s “beautiful researches . and all that I have said on the subject has been derived from him. Tyndall talked of the work needed to raise a body against gravity. the energy generated in a chemical reaction. this man was the first to raise the conception of the interaction of natural forces to clearness in his own mind. He talked of a meteoric origin for the sun’s heat.” No doubt Mayer’s work had been neglected. and even to scientific men his merits are but partially known. in Mayer’s little-known paper of 1842. Accordingly. In another paper came the suggestion from Mayer that meteors falling into the sun provided its heat. or mechanical form. All that I have brought before you has been taken from the labours of a German physician. quite independent of Mayer” but emphasized again that Mayer had calculated the mechanical equivalent of heat a year earlier. And yet he is scarcely ever heard of in scientific lectures. . but six years previously the subject had been handled in a masterly manner by Mayer. He described the universal concept of energy underlying all these seemingly distinct phenomena and asked rhetorically. the heat released by the same body when it fell and slammed into the earth. and so on. . and no doubt too . then.” Tyndall’s fiery sense of justice led him to a vigorous endorsement of Mayer: “Here was a man of genius working in silence. the ability of electric currents to make magnets move. a comprehensive statement of the equivalence of physical action. animated solely by a love of his subject.” Tyndall likewise was taken aback to find. are we indebted for the striking generalizations of this evening’s discourse? All that I have laid before you is the work of a man of whom you have scarcely ever heard. and arriving at the most important results some time in advance of those whose lives were entirely devoted to Natural Philosophy. whether of chemical. and how in 1854 “Professor William Thomson applied his admirable mathematical powers to the development of the theory. in his 1862 lecture.

” they began. that one great branch of our present subject. But it is not to be imagined that for all this the . until the proof was furnished by Davy. a year before Joule. and in an article specially intended for popular information. was in reality discovered so lately as twenty years ago by a German physician. heat could have conducted down them into the ice. Thomson had begun by briefly mentioning Davy and also Count Rumford. their article on energy tried to set matters straight. . who as a military engineer in Bavaria had noted as early as 1798 the generation of heat by drill bits used to bore out cannons. in 1842. This attempt to put Mayer ahead of Joule came to Thomson’s attention during the summer of 1862. With Thomson’s malleable view of history bolstered by Tait’s pugnacity and adaptable sense of logic. Ideally he should have done his experiment under vacuum. Thomson said. so that heat from the air would not melt the ice. had provided evidence for heat being a dynamical phenomenon. but it seems that these early ideas only impressed themselves on Thomson’s attention after he had belatedly accepted Joule’s evidence for the dynamical nature of heat. . .CONTROVERSIES 183 Tyndall’s effort to reinstate him was sincere. not an intangible fluid. It is very hard to imagine how this experiment could have been done convincingly. “We were certainly amazed. tried an experiment of rubbing two pieces of ice together to see if heat from friction would melt them. he went out of his way to needle the big names of British science. along with a calculation of the mechanical equivalent of heat. in their 1862 article on energy.” Bringing Humphry Davy into the argument was a smart dodge. in the early years of the 19th century. Nonetheless. Davy apparently held the ice by tongs but still. unsupported by scientific evidence. born in prerevolutionary Massachusetts as Benjamin Thompson. Davy had allegedly. “to find in a recent number of a popular magazine. Both Davy and Rumford. But in repeatedly stressing the German’s priority over both Joule and Thomson. In his long account of 1851 on the new theory of heat and work. In writing a rebuttal they were obliged to face an inconvenient fact: Mayer had indeed published a statement of the equivalence of heat and other forms of energy. when Tait was visiting him on the Isle of Arran. Thomson and Tait now declared firmly that the relationship of heat and motion “remained a conjecture. which we had been accustomed to associate with the great name of Davy.

is Joule. But of course! And so.” This elaborate recitation is intended to make clear that. although Joule had not published his work until 1843. the belligerence and elision of inconvenient facts are no doubt Tait’s. he had working up to it for a number of years before that. who finally mention Mayer’s 1842 paper only to say that in it “the results obtained by preceding naturalists are stated with precision—among them the fundamental one of Davy—new experiments are suggested. but pick and choose from scientific history and allow the reader to conclude that Mayer. for upwards of forty years after Davy’s proof of its non-existence. They are careful not to say anything demonstrably untrue. The authors moved swiftly on: “The founder of the modern dynamical theory of the heat. and in 1841 he published researches which contain the germ of the vast developments of dynamical science as applied to chemical actions. All in all. and a method for finding the dynamical equivalent of heat is propounded. But that was of no concern to Thomson and Tait. far from saying anything new. and consequently. one may equally well imagine. caloric was believed in. written about.” Breathtakingly absent from this summary is any hint that among those who clung for years to a belief in the “pleasant fiction called Caloric” was Thomson himself. but the implication that Davy had prefigured the general idea of the conservation of energy is entirely misleading. As early as 1840 we find him investigating the heat generated by electric currents. On the strength of this publication an attempt has been made to claim for Mayer the credit for being the first to establish in its generality the principle of the Conservation of Energy. and taught.” It was true that Mayer mentioned Davy’s alleged experiment. all over the world. an extension immediately beyond anything previously surmised. Thomson and Tait’s account is astonishingly dishonest. In 1843 he published the results of a well planned and executed series of experiments. by which he ascertained that a pound of water is raised one degree Fahrenheit in temperature by 772 foot-pounds of mechanical work done upon it. as an example of the general principle he was discussing. merely summarized what was already well known in 1842. The tendency to interpret the past fluidly is perhaps Thomson’s. had Mayer been thinking about the matter for some time before 1842.184 Degrees Kelvin pleasant fiction called Caloric was to be abandoned. The purpose of the article is not to review the origin of .

and from this empirical basis he had argued . Mayer imagined a volume of mercury falling in a glass column. Take away this numerical estimate and Mayer’s paper was nothing but windy prose and metaphysics. The philosophical reason has more substance. A thinker as illustrious as Helmholtz. Mayer came up with a number that was. It was Joule. not far from the right answer. unhappily for Thomson and Tait. but once convinced. From simple mechanics and the approximately known properties of air. to accept that someone else besides Joule had made the connection clear would be to imply that Thomson ought to have seen the truth sooner than he did.CONTROVERSIES 185 the conservation of energy. Mayer thus spoke of something being conserved without any precise sense of what that something was. though whether Mayer knew that is unclear. Although he adduced various examples of physical phenomena. one personal and the other philosophical. he had all the zeal of the convert and praised Joule above everyone else—Joule being the greatest precisely because he had succeeded in changing Thomson’s mind. The language of energy did not yet exist. in 1847. it is to place Joule above Mayer by whatever means lend themselves. His calculation of the mechanical equivalent of heat Thomson and Tait attacked vigorously. Thomson had for some years resisted Joule’s argument that mechanical work could create heat. who had performed careful experiments to establish that mechanical energy turned into heat with a consistent conversion factor. Mayer’s 1842 paper contained a great deal more vaporous rhetoric than rational analysis. talked of the conservation of “force. Their complaint was that Mayer gave no good reason for assuming that all the energy of a falling weight would go into heating the compressed volume of air. that nothing uncaused could happen. thus turning the energy of the fall into heat. Conversely. and that therefore physical “effects” of any sort could not appear and disappear spontaneously. compressing and heating the air beneath it. Air is not an ideal gas—but it’s close enough. Why the great animus against Mayer? Two reasons stand out. his case rested on a vaguely Kantian assertion that all natural events must have true and proximate causes. Thomson and Tait insisted.” that term being used interchangeably for the distinct concepts now labeled force and energy. For an ideal gas this would be the result.

on dubious metaphysical grounds. to say that Mayer indeed deserved more recognition than he had received but that “to give to Mayer. and Women of Italy. Having earlier stated his admiration and respect for Joule. Thomson and Tait found intolerable. Tyndall. He had assumed. of which he had been an editor for some years now. and Tait could not resist replying again for his side.) Tyndall translated Mayer’s papers and arranged for their publication in the Philosophical Magazine. be found in a footnote to Joule’s first paper. Mayer had not done the work or propounded good science. Tyndall responded that he didn’t mean to detract from Joule’s merit. a theoretical principle. He made some captious remarks about Thomson and Tait putting a scientific question before the readership of Good Words. as if the general public was somehow to adjudicate the dispute. admitted that he . or indeed any single individual. Tait responded brusquely that the correct value could. above all. the undivided praise of propounding the dynamical theory of heat. but defended Mayer against the charge that he didn’t know what he was doing. he didn’t deserve credit for making a lucky guess. even so. This was how science must proceed: from observation and experiment to theoretical principle. seeing that he had published essays in Macmillan’s Magazine. he now noted that Joule’s initial determinations of the mechanical equivalent of heat “were so discordant that nobody attached any value to them” and that Helmholtz (Thomson’s great friend—a nice touch!) had in 1847 paid little attention to Joule’s work for precisely that reason. but no more than that. Mayer had it backwards. in his levelheaded way. then had made an unjustifiable calculation of the mechanical equivalent of heat. This. Inevitably. Joule wrote briefly. which by pure luck gave the correct answer. The Philosophical Magazine carried charges and rebuttals and countercharges for several months. Tyndall had to reply to Thomson and Tait. Sunken Rocks. Tait did not mention that. Thomson had published one of his serious discussions on the age of the earth in Macmillan’s.” (Of course. alongside articles on “Water Babies. Tait responded that the magazine published one scientific article in every issue. and anyway Tyndall was in no position to talk.186 Degrees Kelvin for the universality of energy. is manifestly unjust. slightly abashed.” For himself he claimed the first “decisive proof ” of the dynamical nature of heat.

had all made statements sounding like inarticulate versions of a law of conservation of energy before Mayer came into it. Thomson replied in a brief letter to the editors. but stated a number of points more precisely and sys- 4By contrast. neither side admitting defeat or acknowledging agreement. In vague and speculative form. stretching his powers of interpretation to the limit. Tyndall responded with Victorian high dudgeon: “What you have the hardihood to affirm. As different forms of energy and their interrelationship were understood. you certainly must have the goodness to prove or the manliness to retract. Helmholtz. the controversy achieved little. both French. Thomson contributed only once. the historian E. withdrawing from the discussion. N. the idea had been around for some time. implying none too delicately that he wished to speak to the organ grinder not the monkey. Apart from possible therapeutic benefits to Tyndall and Tait. Tait. p. wanted Tyndall to admit that Isaac Newton himself had understood energy conservation.” . a Dane. Hiebert (1962.” Over about a year the debate fizzled. but in any case. contributed little that was original. 105) has remarked: “It is surprising to discover that Newton neither mentioned nor recognized the validity of the principle of the conservation of mechanical energy in any of his works. saying he did not wish to participate in the discussion but professing full confidence in whatever his colleague said. and Colding. what about all the other discrepant numbers in the body of the paper? These exchanges make immensely tedious reading.CONTROVERSIES 187 hadn’t noticed this footnote until now.4 Tait wrote with belligerence and bluster to cover up the holes in his logic. objecting to being addressed over Tait’s head.” he concluded. no one person deserves credit for formulating the principle of energy conservation. or rather would have. the notion grew clearer. Several other names came up: Sèguin and Verdet. had he understood heat and light and electricity and magnetism better than he could have done at the time. in his 1847 essay. As Joule had said at the outset. “Allow me to say I consider a great injury to myself that I should be made even apparently the medium of the statements which Dr Tyndall addresses to me regarding my friend Professor Tait. Tyndall on one occasion addressed Thomson rather than Tait.

must take. Truesdell argues that this was the real foundation of a rigorously stated law of conservation of energy. modified Carnot’s reasoning by allowing heat and work to interconvert. . say. Then again. as a particular instance of energy conservation. in both the good and bad senses. that the internal energy would have the properties it needed to have to make his revised version of Carnot’s argument come out right. When Clausius. To accommodate this possibility Clausius invented what is now called “internal energy. and independent of any assumption about the true constitution of gases. some of it would go not into a change of temperature but into overcoming intermolecular forces. Clausius seems to have decided. That such niceties remain debatable today illustrates the hopelessness of trying to apportion credit among the many scientists who contributed to the formulation of the laws of energy conservation and thermodynamics. Historian of science Clifford Truesdell has argued.” took up this question with more care. in his series of papers “On The Dynamical Theory of Heat. on the other hand. Thomson. Instead. He saw that he couldn’t found a rigorous set of thermodynamic laws if he depended on the wholly unproven hypothesis that a gas consisted of molecules. in 1850. But he also recognized that there could be forces of attraction or repulsion between these molecules. not only that the internal energy must exist but that it had all the correct mathematical properties and relationships to other properties to allow it to serve as a genuine thermodynamic function. so that heat was their energy of motion. The point is a perhaps an excessively sophisticated one. However. one might say that energy conservation as an overarching concept was established by this time and that Thomson’s achievement here was to demonstrate exactly what form the first law of thermodynamics. he was able to show on quite general grounds. on the basis of his molecular picture of a gas. In that case. as late as 1851. These are academic arguments.188 Degrees Kelvin tematically than had been done before.” which became part of the accounting needed to depict the thermodynamic state of a gas. that the first incontrovertible and mathematically correct statement of a true conservation law came from William Thomson himself. he had in mind that gas was a collection of atoms or molecules. when energy was used to compress a gas.

rarely pushed hard for his own case (unless writing with Tait). 1866: Is it. In 1868 the Thomsons spent some weeks at Bellagio. The same doctor told Thomson his lame leg would benefit from immersion. this clasp importunate. whose waters had been recommended for Lady Thomson. but my . Poems from later years record episodes when death. often housebound though accompanying her husband on summer trips to Arran or to Kreuznach. I cannot struggle with a power so great. or to Newton. whatever seemed appropriate or congenial at the time. Struggle. “I have commenced trying [the waters].CONTROVERSIES 189 Tyndall’s estimation of Mayer was excessive. was absurd. he had little time for dubious treatments on his own account. both variable and extreme in that he would give pride of place sometimes to Joule. Thomson’s opinion on the matter remains enigmatic. before retreating over the Alps to Bad Kissingen.” This reinforces a suspicion that the harsh words against Mayer in “Energy” came mostly from Tait. but never to a German. yield: she survived anyway. O death? I will submit. and even after the spat with Tyndall could be generous to Mayer. as a change. the great German advocate of the modern theory of heat. thine. From August 20. He was inclined to say. where the waters failed to cure her. and probably even believe. Late in 1862 she suffered a fall that did her no physical harm but left her shocked and nervous. Tait’s position. who did so much to urge the reception of the idea of an equivalence between heat and mechanical power. his own or anyone else’s.” he made passing reference to “Mayer. from the waters at Kreuznach. on Lake Como in northern Italy. He praised Joule unceasingly. submit. but as much as he hoped for a miraculous cure for his wife. fluttered closer. *** Through these years Margaret Thomson remained an invalid. As he told his sister Elizabeth. presumably. then. In his 1868 lecture “On Geological Time. But yield me. admittedly with Thomson’s acquiescence. as is fit. Thomson didn’t care much for history. her angel. or to Davy.

Her loss created an absence in his life—an absence not so much of emotion as of occupation. Friends and colleagues testified occasionally to Margaret’s lively intelligence and charm. The university engaged a substitute teacher for that session. Her poems spoke otherwise. away from the smoke and grime of their Glasgow residence.190 Degrees Kelvin faith is not so great in their efficacy. he spent many hours at his wife’s bedside. she concluded an ode to death thus: All have failed but thou. From Bellagio in 1868. Thomson’s commitment to his wife had been one of uncomplaining devotion rather than passion. He refused to teach the spring classes. bringing to a close the 17 years of nameless ill health she had endured since overtaxing herself on her honeymoon tour. His immediate solution was work and travel. 1870. E’en though Despair suggest to Faith That there is cause to doubt thee too. but Thomson took her occasional rallies as slight cause for optimism. from the sun and the warmth and the soothing. Margaret’s health declined steadily. In the second half of 1869 her health became decidedly worse. Thomson had long sought to remedy its one flaw: It needed an operator to stand by at all times and record the flickering motion of . Though Margaret’s sister and others assisted him. Margaret Thomson died on June 17. where they still lived in one of the old college houses squeezed among the city’s slums. He could sleep apparently at will and got up at three every morning to take over nursing duties. gorgeous landscape of Italy. Although the Atlantic expedition of 1858 and the tussle with Whitehouse had demonstrated the virtues of his mirror galvanometer. O death! To thy promise be thou true.” Even so he wrote to Helmholtz that “my wife has been feeling much better and able to walk since she came here. despite all evidence to the contrary. and it seems as if she had derived real benefit from the waters. That winter Thomson took his wife to the Scottish coast at Largs. to the point where her doctors would not allow travel at all.” Thomson maintained constant hope for improvement in Margaret’s condition. so that he could stay with her in the fresh sea air.

This new technology was ingenious but delicate. saw messages arrive in London on one of Thomson’s siphon recorders. Pierre. Thomson spent several weeks in Cornwall tinkering with his siphon recorder at the English end of the India cable. this “siphon” was connected to a small magnet that moved from side to side in response to electrical signals. but these instruments demanded bigger electric pulses than long oceanic telegraphs could provide. The operators of the French Atlantic cable. to Bombay began transmitting in April 1870. among other distinguished guests. pushing a finely controllable ink jet from the end of the siphon. The important innovation in the siphon recorder was that Thomson devised a system to electrically charge the ink in its reservoir. where it could be tested alongside the mirror galvanometer. Thomson was eager to take to the seas again to try out the latest version of his siphon recorder. In fact. which ran from Brest to St.CONTROVERSIES 191 the light beam as it registered incoming signals. A paper tape ran beneath the tip of the needle. A long cable from Falmouth. This was an electric rather than a mechanical pump. had been using siphon recorders with mixed success for about a year. but failed to produce a reliable or sensitive system. The modern inkjet printer. Electromechanical devices of the old Morse type had evolved into machines that punched marks onto a paper tape. In 1867 he took out a patent on a new instrument. Thomson tried for a while to build a device that would record electric sparks as scorch marks on paper strips. From there he wrote optimistically to his wife’s sister that “the days of signalling by the ‘spot of . which Thomson adapted from needles used to administer vaccines. uses essentially the trick that Thomson dreamed up in the 1860s. A fine stream of ink passed down a narrow glass needle. on the southwestern coast of England. which became affordable and dependable only in the late 1980s. which he called his siphon recorder. so that electrical repulsion constituted an internal pressure driving the ink through the needle. As in the mirror galvanometer. By the summer of 1870. one might argue it took around 120 years of development for the siphon recorder to graduate to a trustworthy piece of technology. following Margaret’s death. It took Thomson two years of fiddling to make a prototype good enough to install at a telegraph station. and the Prince of Wales.

and they had to dry the machine at the kitchen fire. and they had to return to the mirror instrument instead. After a year of trials in Bombay. .” Mr.” Happily for the telegraph com- . the Mirror is a thing of the past. More than two years later.” The correspondent explained that in damp conditions the ink stopped flowing. The Recorder has undoubtedly tended to lessen greatly. From Bombay. not so distinct on Recorder as on Mirror. Thomson was sent copies of reports from telegraph company men testifying to the siphon recorder’s balkiness. Leitch. He continued: “We loose in speed by it and the signals not being too distinct the speed is still further reduced by repititions being necessary. Will you kindly point this out to Sir William Thompson to see if he can remedy it.” From Aden on the Arabian Peninsula: “I am sorry to say however the Recorder has only worked here with varying success. . that as a Telegraph Instrument it had too many things to get out of order. .” This was premature. I hope when Sir William Thomson’s assistant Mr. but its mechanism proved in practice so delicate that a technician generally had to stand by to keep it running correctly. though not before making the siphon recorder at Suez work tolerably well. . operators concluded that the recorder worked better than the mirror galvanometer from October to May. . on the other hand. . comparitively. . . Though the siphon recorder enjoyed some success. unfortunately died of dysentery in Alexandria at the end of 1872. From balmier Mediterranean climes. the number of errors.192 Degrees Kelvin light’ are numbered.e. in September 1872. . and a luminous electrified pen will succeed the mirror. who had assisted Thomson in Cornwall in 1870 and then headed out to the Far East. came a ringing endorsement: “At Malta. Telegraph companies hoped it would allow a reduction in manpower. . it was never the unqualified triumph that the mirror galvanometer had been a decade earlier. since it recorded messages without an operator. Leitch returns here and gives us the benefit of his advice and experience that I shall be able to report that we are making progress. . complete with misspellings: “The signals are. Close connection with the Instrument does not dispel the opinion that I formed when I first saw it i. and in no way to justify any one in reccommending for you a staff reduction. but that during the monsoon season the constant humidity drained away electric charge from the ink. .

But in a sharp storm at Vigo Bay. Lalla Rookh (“Tulip Cheek”).CONTROVERSIES 193 pany. in tones reminiscent of the letter he had written years ago to his father justifying the purchase of the “funny” at Cambridge: “It is the Lalla Rookh 5 126 tons vessel of 17 years old but of oak & very strong and in perfect condition. In September 1870. the Glasgow mathematician turned lawyer Archibald Smith. despite its delicacy. as he was purchasing the Lalla Rookh. The devices were made in Glasgow by his longtime instrument maker.S. on the northwestern tip of 5The name is from Thomas Moore’s popular but now largely forgotten narrative poem of 1817.000 a year from each company using the siphon recorder— several times his professorial salary. The siphon recorder. he consulted his old colleague. After a few local jaunts he put it up for the winter and started planning nautical excursions for the following year. Smith wrote a few days later: “You quite take away my breath by your plans for a schooner of 120 tons. recounting the travails of a princess of that name who journeys from Delhi to Kashmir in search of the man she is to marry. Thomson never went in for ostentatious displays of affluence. but he showed a taste for some of the things that money could buy. James White. on the Isle of Wight. this report also noted a reduction in staff numbers at Malta because of the recorder’s satisfactory functioning. . Thomson asked for. From his seafaring connections sprang new work and interests. Late in the summer of 1870. who formed a company with Thomson as senior partner. a few months after his wife’s death.” Thomson engaged a captain and crew and sailed his new boat around the coast to Glasgow. During the course of a trip to London on telegraph business. Captain. about a vessel he had heard of. the Royal Navy was conducting trials of the 7.M.000-ton H. and after seeing it Thomson described it to his brother James. and received.” The craft in question was at Cowes. the prototype of a modern design of gunship intended to carry British seapower and political might around the world. and having spent some time again at sea on cabling business. a sailing man himself. It was no mere weekend pleasure craft he chose. fondly imagining his scientific friends would eagerly join him. added to Thomson’s reputation and to his wealth. he decided he needed a boat of his own. that I have bought. licensing fees of £1. also a very good model & said to be a fast sailer.

The two contributed an analysis of the dynamical stability of ships against rolling due to wind and waves. the Captain capsized with the loss of all aboard. Knott. for him. assisting and at the same time criticizing some of the methods. they estimated. no distraction from real science but a vital aspect of what science must do.’ Then off he hurried for a hasty lunch at Tait’s before the start for London where during the next week he was to give expert evidence in a law case. counter to long-standing habit. They concluded that the Captain carried such a quantity of turreted weaponry that it became top heavy and therefore unstable even in moderate seas. consulting on cable ventures. meeting with Admiralty officials. Thomson’s work on this committee (he traveled from Glasgow to London every other week throughout the spring of 1871) contributed to the establishment of elementary principles of physics in ship design and to criteria that any new design must meet. The Admiralty. Tait stood by. was racing incessantly about Britain by sea and rail. thought it wise to obtain technical expertise in its investigation of the catastrophe and accordingly asked Thomson as well as his colleague William Rankine (who was by this time professor of engineering at Glasgow) to serve on a committee of inquiry. it could not have righted itself. After a few hasty calculations he said: ‘That will do. dealing with lawyers and businessmen on patent rights and licensing fees. Thomson. As they with- . Once it tipped more than nine degrees away from vertical. “Full of impatience and excitement Thomson kept moving to and fro between the slabs on which the instruments stood. G. a student of Tait’s and later his biographer. Well into the second half of the 19th century the point needed still to be made that scientific laws were not restricted to the laboratory and the ivory tower but had an essential role in the industrial and military prowess of Great Britain. suggesting new combinations and jotting down in chalk on the blackboard the readings we declared. it is just what I expected. At length Sir William went to the further side of the lecture table and copied into his note book the columns of figures on the blackboard. As always this was. almost 500 men. and darting off to Oxford or Cambridge or some other academic institution to discuss pure science. recalled an occasion when Thomson stopped in at Tait’s lab in Edinburgh on his way to London in order to get some experimental data he needed.194 Degrees Kelvin Spain. C. including its designer. still only in his mid-40s.

in order to build a new railway station for Glasgow. with the move completed in time for the start of the 1870-1871 session. Telegraph and other business he mostly managed to conduct during the long summers (when cabling voyages invariably took place). but during the second part was frequently away for the Captain inquiry.CONTROVERSIES 195 drew. James Thomson had written to his son in Cambridge to say that the railway company had agreed to buy the old college site for £30. from November to May each year. In 1863 the City of Glasgow Union Railway Company made a similar proposal. the university relocated to a new building. and the deal fell through.000 to help the university move. As long ago as 1845. By this time his nephew James Thomson Bottomley. Throughout 1870 Thomson was largely absent during a momentous period in the university’s history.000 for the old site. The new Glasgow University rose up in a more salubrious part of the city. west of the old site. with a complement of courses to teach. and would kick in another £70. Pancras railway station in London. designed in high Victorian style by George Gilbert Scott. had trained as a physicist himself and had become his assistant. . but when the Admiralty summoned him to assist Her Majesty’s government on matters of national importance university lectures took second place. St.’” Amid all this activity and traveling Thomson was still. After years of planning. Tait looked back at us with a laugh and said ‘There’s experimenting for you. and bought the Lalla Rookh. in Cornwall and London. however. now offering £100. He did not attend the inauguration of the new buildings. During the summer he worked on his siphon recorder. born in 1845 to his since deceased sister Anna. saying he was still officially in mourning. That year. but with a combination of government money and funds raised by public subscription (in those days commercial men took civic pride in the great city universities). Thomson attended his dying wife in Largs and rarely came to Glasgow. professor of natural philosophy at Glasgow University.000. But the railway boom came to a bust a few years later. He taught the first part of the 1870-1871 session. Much more was required to build a new college. ground was broken for the new university in 1867. Bottomley took classes with increasing frequency as official duties called Thomson elsewhere. who had been responsible a few years earlier for that most magnificent of Victorian buildings.

196 Degrees Kelvin Out of a mix of loyalty. and less thrilling perhaps than it had seemed to him at the age of 20. Cambridge would make new demands. teaching. The Duke of Devonshire (who had been second wrangler in his day and was then chancellor of the university) offered money for the construction and endowment of a physical laboratory at Cambridge in memory of his great-uncle. His wife’s illness prevented him from making any commitment. and pragmatism. did not attract him. the convenience for getting mechanical work done” (the latter referring to his long-standing relationship with the instrument maker James White). especially when set against “the great advantages I have here in the new College. the apparatus and assistance provided. in a laboratory yet to be built or equipped. in short. and the purer academic environment of that place was. who had for the previous five years abandoned professorial life to be a country squire in the Scottish lowlands. who among other things had calibrated Newton’s inverse square law of gravity by measuring the force between two large masses. affection. advising. business. the accomplished amateur scientist Henry Cavendish. Cambridge appointed James Clerk Maxwell instead. although he never ceased to work at mathematics and physics. though clearly the prospect tempted him. who had been teaching the subject at Glasgow for almost a quarter of a century. Thomson. at this point in Thomson’s life. and the prospect not only of moving but of starting an entire new Cambridge course. which he could not imagine disrupting. was comfortable at Glasgow and had built a life combining scientific work. far less attractive. Thomson remained a Glasgow man. and so on. Maxwell. narrower. though he stands as the greatest theoretical physicist of the . at his modest Galloway estate. He stayed in Glasgow. about coming down to Cambridge to instruct students there in the novelties of experiments and data. He confessed to Cookson an anxiety about taking on new responsibilities. By 1869 Cambridge University had finally worked its way around to seeing the value of experimental physics and approached Thomson. inventing. tried to draw him down from Scotland. But Thomson had begun to settle into his spacious laboratory in the new Glasgow buildings. Cookson. Thomson’s tutor of three decades ago and now master of Peterhouse. and in the course of his life refused the Cavendish professorship three times.

when more papers from James Clerk Maxwell would have bestowed greater benefit on the world. Muck.CONTROVERSIES 197 19th century. a loner with a cryptic and “pawky” Scots sense of humor. though. She had early encouragement in her artistic endeavors from the great critic Ruskin. looking out toward the islands of Rum. He spent an inordinate amount of his time collecting and editing the scientific papers of Henry Cavendish. spent a great deal of time with his friends. Jemima’s mother. Possibly it was not such a good thing for Maxwell. Thomson and Maxwell knew each other but were never particularly close. especially of birds. Probably it was good for Cambridge that they got him and not Thomson. on the west coast of Scotland. professor of mathematics in succession to his father. notably Anthony Trollope and William Thackeray. he set the Cavendish Laboratory on the road to becoming for a considerable stretch of time the premier experimental venue in the world. He and Jemima played and made toys together. *** “I am very glad Maxwell is standing for the professorship. who as he admitted to Cookson had too full and complex a life to devote himself entirely to the creation from scratch of a wholly new laboratory. She was well known in her lifetime for her drawings and watercolors of nature. Jemima recorded a few charming sketches of . at the age of 48. still producing works of enormous profundity and promise. Maxwell. Maxwell died of intestinal cancer. perhaps partly out of relief that he could set the matter behind him. and Eigg). Jemima Blackburn. Thomson.” Thomson had written to Stokes in March 1871. lived a largely detached life. before going to Cambridge. Wedderburn. Diligent as always. and made the acquaintance of a number of Victorian luminaries outside the scientific world. When the teenaged Maxwell attended the Edinburgh Academy. had been instrumental in working out the practicalities of the BA system of electrical units. he lived in Edinburgh with his father’s sister Mrs. The Blackburns entertained numerous visitors and parties at their homes (they had a house in Glasgow and a rambling mansion on the Moidart peninsula. In 1879. and so too for a while did James Clerk Maxwell. was a cousin of Maxwell’s. the wife of Thomson’s Cambridge friend and Glasgow colleague Hugh Blackburn. especially before he was married.

according to Jemima. possibly not even Maxwell himself. and being of a very affectionate tender disposition [Maxwell] married her out of gratitude. where Maxwell was professor from 1857 to 1860. both in Edinburgh and at his father’s small estate. who had a splendid time amusing the numerous Blackburn children. but much enamored of him. but similar accounts come from other acquaintances. although she no doubt had her points was. like Thomson. who went on to become a moderately well known applied mathematician and a notable coach of more wran- .” The son of one physicist said that “Mrs. you are beginning to enjoy yourself. “James. though.198 Degrees Kelvin James. In Jemima’s words. Maxwell lost in 1854 to E. nor healthy. while Hugh Blackburn and Thomson lark about with the youngsters. Katherine Dewar was several years older than her husband. was always eager to talk to his colleagues at the laboratory. straightforward fellow. Routh.” Another Cambridge physicist advised new arrivals that Maxwell. J. James Clerk Maxwell was far less at ease in the boisterous Blackburn household than was William Thomson. Maxwell. Jemima had reason to be irked. looking away. nor agreeable. engaging. Thomson was a bluff. a difficult woman. It was said that her sister had brought about the match by telling him how much she was in love with him. belongs to the rank of distinguished scientists who managed only second place in the wrangler competition. Her mind afterwards became unsettled but he was always most kind to her. to put it bluntly. A watercolor by Jemima shows Maxwell sitting silently to one side. “The lady was neither pretty. A student at Aberdeen described Maxwell as “the most delightful and sympathetic of beings” but said he had a “terrible wife.” There is a Cambridge anecdote that she fetched her husband away from a social gathering once by announcing loudly.” As a cousin and childhood friend displaced by a wife. where the Wedderburns visited. She alienated him from his friends. but Maxwell was by nature an ironist and an observer. As an adult. but warned them they should not call on him at home. Maxwell’s withdrawal from social life was completed when he married a woman whom. it’s time you went home. and was a suspicious and jealous nature. when he was a professor there. Maxwell. and the daughter of the principal of Marischal College in Aberdeen. no one liked. and put up with it all.

. “greatly aided by the analogy of the conduction of heat. but being a busy man of diverse interests had not yet got around to assembling it all in publishable form. . in September 1855. “As there can be no doubt that you have the mathematical part of the theory in your desk all that you have to do is to explain your results with reference to electricity. but I find no other man to apply to on the subject so I hope you may not find it difficult to see my drift. and at what stage and in what order might he read your articles in the Cambridge Journal?” In the mid-1850s Thomson had published his innovative papers on electricity and magnetism. By the end of 1854 Maxwell was telling Thomson that he had “been rewarded of late by finding the whole mass of confusion beginning to clear up under the influence of a few simple ideas. “Suppose a man to have a popular knowledge of electrical show experiments and a little antipathy to Murphy’s Electricity [a textbook of the day that did not impress Maxwell]. If he wished to read Ampere and Faraday &c how should they be arranged. . This is a long screed of electricity. Maxwell was eager to start publishing his own ideas and discoveries but remained cautious about encroaching on Thomson’s territory. wh: I believe is your invention at least I never found it elsewhere. . . .CONTROVERSIES 199 glers. I certainly intend to poach . Already acquainted with Thomson through the Blackburns. I think that if you were to do so publicly it would introduce a new set of electrical notions into circulation & save much useless speculation. Maxwell had studied closely Thomson’s early work on the analogies between electric lines of force and heat flow and wrote to him in February 1854 asking for advice on how to proceed.” he wrote. . “I would be much assisted by your telling me whether you have not the whole draught of the thing lying in loose papers and neglected only till you have worked out Heat or got a little spare time. Digesting these works. he said. . how ought he to proceed in reading & working so as to get a little insight into the subject wh may be of use. I do not know the Game-laws and Patent-laws of science.” In this endeavor he was. the main achievement of which had been to cast in mathematical form Faraday’s qualitative ideas about lines of force and the state of “electrotonic” tension that Faraday believed to pervade electrified space. .” A little less than a year later. Maxwell conceived that Thomson had more or less evolved a full theory of electromagnetism.

finding relationships between the spatial distribution of charges and magnets and the fields they produced. Thomson believed that mathematical similarity betokened an underlying physical connection. in loose papers or otherwise. their variation with time. Thomson had the same goal but wanted to get there by a different route. He wished to discover what properties a physical solid would need—density. As with his earlier analogies between electric lines of forces and lines of heat flow according to Fourier.” In fact. Thomson believed. Thomson had no theory. In 1855 Maxwell wrote the first of his great papers on electromagnetic theory. As early as 1847 he had published a paper in which he tried to portray electric and magnetic influences by analogy to the behavior of solid materials with specific properties. Maxwell aimed to capture electromagnetism in mathematical form. This grand synthesis Maxwell eventually created. Maxwell was mistaken. I intend to take them. and magnetic forces. For him.200 Degrees Kelvin among your electrical images. elasticity—in order to provide a complete and consistent model for the behavior and interrelationship of electric and magnetic effects. in the sense that different phenomena appeared to follow the same kinds of law. and (as Faraday had so triumphantly demonstrated) the generation of currents by moving lines of magnetic force. Maxwell had worked out a full mathematical treatment of lines of force on Faraday’s model. It suggested three different analogies for electric forces. His early work didn’t do this. He imagined an elastic material with some rigidity. and by that time Thomson resisted the theory Maxwell gave to the world. Find a plausible physical solid that con- . but not for another 10 years. As different as were their personalities.” This was not yet a theory of electromagnetism. but did not link these notions to the movement of electric charges or variations in magnetic fields. waiting to be published. rigidity. capable of being deformed by external forces but also resisting such forces and returning to its normal disposition when unstressed. Such thinking bolstered his entire approach to electromagnetism. But it was a step in the right direction. and as for the hints you have dropped about the ‘higher’ electricity. Maxwell and Thomson diverged too in their views of mathematical science. electric currents. entitled “On Faraday’s Lines of Force. mathematics was to be trusted only if it emerged from a tangible physical model.

but he saw that as an isolated triumph within a theory that was. He is perhaps the nearest to understanding what I meant. without any necessary connection or analogy to other parts of physics. that the mathematical laws governing electromagnetism must be sui generis. obtain the correct equations.CONTROVERSIES 201 tained an analogy to all electromagnetic phenomena at the same time. in the modern sense. But Thomson saw this as abstract mathematics. so he fiercely believed. There was no model.” Then Maxwell took up the cause. currents.” But over the years Maxwell drifted further from Thomson’s concep- . but that was entirely in keeping with Thomson’s distaste for “metaphysics. This belief never left him. no theory at all. and you have found all you can need or want. “one of the most valuable of these truly scientific. divorced from direct physical meaning. give much clue as to the elementary nature of electromagnetism. he said. This was. In 1855. Maxwell’s finished theory of 1865 contained elements that Thomson disliked precisely because they had no analogy to the behavior of any known kind of physical solid. or science-forming ideas. but his genius led him to see. Maxwell may have started out thinking along the same lines. “How few understand the physical lines of force!” he said to her.” Find the right analogy. Indeed. Such a theory would not. and what we now recognize as the electromagnetic field. no tangible. rendering in precise mathematical form Faraday’s extraordinary vision of electric and magnetic influences pervading space. something new in physics. and you will have found a full and satisfactory theory of electromagnetism. He accepted that Maxwell had found an important link between the propagation of electromagnetic influences and the speed of light. to him. Faraday felt isolated in his views on electromagnetism. acknowledging his initial debt to Thomson. after all. Maxwell built a theory of mathematical relationships between charges. whose early analogy between heat flow and electric tension was. laws that correctly accounted for electromagnetic phenomena and interrelationships. Such reservations were not unique to Thomson. Maxwell’s was the first modern field theory. palpable elastic substance underlying the quantities Maxwell defined. after many years of cogitation. according to his niece.” Subsequent work too he “considered as a development of Thomson’s idea. “Thompson [sic] of Glasgow seems almost the only one who acknowledges them.

telling the board members: “I have been most happy in your kindness. who had long complained of difficulties with memory. . Such peace is alone in the gift of god. My life has been a happy one and all I desired. I desire therefore to lay down this duty. while remaining always true to Faraday’s vision. which makes the contemplation of death a comfort—not a fear. he resigned his lifelong position from the Royal Institution in October 1861.202 Degrees Kelvin tion of a theory of electromagnetism. that my regret must be greater than yours can or need be. was by this time in his late 60s and beginning to lose his mental powers. . that such has been the pleasure of the occupation to me. I hope. and I may truly say. he had written of his sustaining faith: “I am. He lived with his wife at Hampton Court. Faraday became silent and motionless. never knowing of the way in which Maxwell had succeeded in casting his vision of the electromagnetic field into a mathematical form that other scientists would slowly accept. . He wrote to Faraday in 1857 that “as far as I know you are the first person in whom the idea of bodies acting at a distance by throwing the surrounding medium into a state of constraint has arisen. when Heinrich Hertz succeeded in creating and detecting radio waves.” This “state of constraint” or “state of energy” was Maxwell’s way of reaching toward what we now understand as the electromagnetic field. He stopped writing to friends because he could not finish a sentence without losing his train of thought. why shall we be afraid? His unspeakable gift in his beloved son is the ground of no doubtful hope. . .” He died in 1867. . in a “grace and favour” apartment at Queen Victoria’s disposal. and as it is he who gives it. Nothing is clearer than your descriptions of all sources of force keeping up a state of energy in all that surrounds them. . and in the fostering care which the Royal Institution has bestowed on me.—the good hope is left with me. . .” In his final years. Faraday. After Maxwell’s death in 1879 it was not until 1888. and there is the rest for those who like you and me are drawing near the latter end of our terms here below. very thankful that in the withdrawal of the power and things of this life. Reluctantly. . which state by its increase or diminution measures the work done by any change in the system. In one of his last letters to an old friend. that the scientific world began to embrace wholeheartedly Maxwell’s views. as a principle actually to be believed in.

did he accept that Maxwell’s theory would do. As to English. modern theoretical physics emerged by evolution more than revolution. soon after they first met. Thomson’s undergraduate rival who had become a professor at St. in Cantabrigian or French style (although the two were gradually becoming closer). Thomson and Tait conceived the idea of writing a textbook. as long as the concept of energy was held foremost. there are none. Thomson and Tait wanted to start from the new conception of energy. Not only did this simplify the concepts of mechanics. allowing the student who mastered its techniques to apply them not simply to idealized laboratory examples and Cambridge tripos questions but also to electric telegraph cables and steam engines and ship design. but it allowed mechanical laws to connect to all other branches of physics.CONTROVERSIES 203 Even then. He did not succeed. But their textbook was to be furthermore a practical compendium of physics. *** From the time of Newton and Galileo until the startling innovations of the early 20th century. but these were essentially axiomatic exercises in applied philosophy. in several volumes. even at the end of his life. and show how the rules of physical interaction followed ineluctably from the crucial law of conservation. “Do you know of any elementary work on Mechanics starting with the idea of ‘mechanical energy’ or ‘work’?” No such book existed. in a postscript. At this time there was nothing we would now recognize as a general textbook of physics. in order to lay out the mathematical principles of “natural philosophy” that they both saw as the model for a finished science of the inanimate universe. Andrews. but neither. Thomson refused to see the physics in Maxwell’s elegant mathematics and worked endlessly on alternative theories that would produce the right results on a quite different physical basis. Ludwig Fischer. in all its generality. Tait was writing to Thomson with the broad outline of a plan and concluded: “I fancy that we might easily give in three moderate volumes a far more complete course of Physics Experimental & Mathematical than exists (to my knowledge) either in French or German. At end of 1861. Around 1860. There were volumes of mathematics.” A couple of weeks later he . wrote to him in 1855 asking.

but how about our own classes? What we want at once is not the fame of authorship. light. not least because of “the expense to the students.204 Degrees Kelvin listed his idea of chapter titles. but the supply of a want of elementary teaching. In fact. elements of a conceptual whole. We may mulct & bleed Oxford and Cambridge & Rugby &c &c to any extent. commercial. and government business. on to sound. moving from basic kinematics and dynamics. especially the Scotch ones. and heat. Tait’s difficulties with his coauthor became evident: “I will shortly send you the revised headings. the conservation of energy. then to electricity and magnetism. culminating in a final discussion of that essential principle. to the properties of matter. and organized sailing expeditions on the Lalla Rookh. that you may see whether they correspond with your ideas. As Thomson gallivanted around Britain and further afield on scientific. In what turned out to be a woefully premature pronouncement. as he was toward enemies such as Tyndall. it is a product of the late 19th century. to hydrostatics and hydromechanics (that is. Thomson and Tait were not simply the first to think of putting all these subjects between one set of covers. and fall to. and Thomson and Tait’s textbook marks as well as anything its formal appearance. Rather.” Thomson sent Tait bits and scraps and sketches. classical physics. “Let us apportion our work. The modern student will recognize this list as forming the backbone of that time-honored subject. Thomson began by proposing more subjects and suggesting three or four volumes of experimental matters alone. execution another. An average of three or 4 (or less) hours a day would give us the volume in 6 weeks. Concept was one thing. for whom his admiration bordered on besotment. the behavior and motion of fluids).” he announced. One may easily get the impression that classical physics had been around for dusty generations before the beginning of the 20th century and the emergence of quantum mechanics and relativity. he advised Thomson on Christmas Day in 1861 that completion of the first volume by the following May seemed altogether feasible.” By the middle of January they were still haggling about the list of contents. which . which I confess I have but vaguely gleaned from your notes. they were the first to see these subjects as subparts of a single discipline. Tait expressed his alarm at this. The most attractive aspect of Tait’s character is that he could be as abrupt and unappeasable toward Thomson. it was Tait’s task to get the book written.

. Thomson in any case did not respond promptly. but you have taken no notice of them whatever. who rather than refining and polishing began adding whole new sections and offshoots in the margins. having discovered to his amusement that the archbishops of York and Canterbury at that time were also Thomson and Tait.” Each year from 1861 Tait urged Thomson to make haste so they could have at least a small installment of their text printed by September. ready for the incoming class of university students. and returned these products to Thomson.” The next day. what can I do? You have not given me even a hint as to what you want done in our present Chapter about Statics of Liquids and Gases! . as editor of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in London. on Prop[erties] of Matter with your amendments &c. Each year the book failed to materialize. I sent you a great bundle of proof sheets only ten days ago.) A month later Tait became more peremptory still: “I wish you would go ahead. ought to have been out by the 30th of Novr and here’s your paper won’t . . Do look alive with my MSS. . had attended Edinburgh Academy some 15 years before Tait and Maxwell.” To no avail. . who also referred to them sometimes as the archiepiscopal pair.” They had taken to addressing each other as T and T′. . Stokes. You proposed certain preposterous problems which I could not be bothered working out. in May 1864. . Now all this is very pitiable: I declare you did twice as much during the winter as you are doing now. the archbishop of Canterbury. Tait was writing thus: “Dr T. and Tait had to plead constantly to get anything out of his coauthor: “I wish you would send back my sketch of the Chap. apparently a shorthand begun by Maxwell. If you send only scraps and these at rare intervals. Thomson published scientific papers and reviews at a great rate throughout his life. I am getting quite sick of the great Book. More than two years later. It should have been all in type this week. on another aspect of the book. he urged “at all events act speedily. but his productivity came from working on so many projects at once that he could easily pick up another when he tired momentarily of one. The vol of the Phil. (Archibald Campbell Tait. Trans.CONTROVERSIES 205 Tait assembled into some form of continuous text. & I will have it written as soon as is consistent with care and completeness. had encountered the difficulty: “You are a terrible fellow and I must write you a scolding.

and Largs. and making all their charms familiar to our ears as household words. or Arran. Barrie remarked that it was “better known in my year as the ‘Student’s First Glimpse of Hades. Tait appeared. or George Square. which may not have pleased his correspondents. in respect to the irksome details for the interchange of drafts for ‘copy’. and reprintings and revisions were soon in demand. in October 1867.” All this to-ing and fro-ing may not have appeared to Tait quite as much of a joke as it did to Thomson. only more amused.206 Degrees Kelvin be ready for a month yet. the Treatise on Natural Philosophy by Sir William Thomson and P.’” Commenting in Nature on an updated version published in 1879.” Thomson responded to this and other scoldings with invariable good humor. After its difficult gestation. “The two northern wizards6 were the first who. amendments in type. but of necessity it was largely carried on by post. the book did well. 6The “Wizard of the North” was Sir Walter Scott. out of a pocket handkerchief. Thomson recalled that “the making of the first part of ‘T and T′’ was treated as a perpetual joke. or Drummond Place. G. Maxwell identified the greatest virtue of the Treatise as the liberation of arcane mathematical propositions in abstract dynamics into the world of practical scientists and even engineers. or the old and new College of Glasgow.” Maxwell wrote in his idiosyncratic way. Even the postman laughed when he delivered one of our missives. in which he had tied it to make sure of not dropping it on the way. having existed in a sort of samizdat form for years. “The credit of breaking up the monopoly of the great masters of the spell. At any rate. Helmholtz quickly arranged for a German translation. and final corrections of proofs. M. In his obituary notice for Tait many years later. about the size of a postage stamp. Reviewers liked it. It was lightened by the interchange of visits between Greenhill Gardens. as others had found before him. belongs in great measure to Thomson and Tait. since he carried on as dilatory as before. that it was impossible to chide Thomson to any effect. Undergraduates bought it at a smart pace. at over 700 pages long. circulating among the undergraduates of Edinburgh and Glasgow as proof sections in various states of completion. . although J. Tait found.

He proudly explained to the Cambridge mathematician Arthur Cayley how he had transformed one of Thomson’s mathematical arguments: “Three pages of formulae can easily.” As late as the 1870s. offered a marvelous degree of compactness in writing down complex mathematical equations. Quaternions.” Thomson never approved of mathematical formalism for its own sake. Maxwell. difficult.CONTROVERSIES 207 without compunction or dread. He invested many years of effort in promoting a novel kind of mathematics called “quaternions. but the philosophy behind it was Thomson’s.” This quixotic enthusiasm drew few converts. least of all Thomson. Maxwell found it necessary to remark on the gap between practical physics and mathematical reasoning. “We have had a thirty-eight year war over quaternions. noted the “remarkable condensation not to say coagulation of style. which has rendered it impenetrable to all but the piercing intellect of the author in his best moments.” he explained long afterward to a colleague. That the book appeared at all was entirely due to Tait. in other words.” Tait strove to introduce quaternionic notation into T and T′. To this Cayley dryly replied that. “Times without number I offered to let quaternions into Thomson and Tait if he could only show that in any case our work would be helped by their use. Thomson remarked: “Oh! That the Cayleys would devote what skill they have to . however. You will see that from beginning to end they were never introduced. Although Cayley disdained quaternions.” a cousin to modern vector analysis. uttered in their mother tongue the true and proper names of those dynamical concepts which the magicians of old were wont to invoke only by the aid of muttered symbols and inarticulate equations. Thomson and Tait provided the means to bridge that gap. but Thomson breezily paid no attention. as with a pocket map. he was still too rarefied a mathematician for Thomson’s taste. in a characteristically backhanded remark about one of Tait’s quaternionic papers. containing a prodigious amount of information in compact form. but practical problem. the thing had to be unfolded again to be of any use. and with immense increase of comprehensibility. Tait compared quaternions to a pocket map. Writing to Helmholtz in order to convey his compliments to another German scientist who had succeeded in working out a long. Tait at heart was a formalist. be put in as many lines of quaternions. Tait claimed.

in irreversible processes (the working of real engines. Tait set himself to untangle this history. Thomson. When he finally came up with the name entropy. the point of mathematics was to solve physical problems. and so on). entropy grew. Thomson and Tait’s 1867 Treatise on Natural Philosophy was the first textbook to bring to undergraduates a comprehensive summary. in a tangled and difficult way. Ostensibly. *** While goading Thomson toward completion of their joint textbook. in 1865. in 1852. Tait aimed to provide a thorough and rational account not simply of the two laws of thermodynamics but also of their genesis. Clausius recognized a physical concept that had emerged. But he also had a second agenda. friction. His correspondence with Thomson reveals a different story. relating to the second law. In what were called reversible processes. conduction of heat without production of work.208 Degrees Kelvin such things instead of to pieces of algebra which possibly interest four people in the world. prompted by the controversy with Tyndall over the origins of the law of conservation of energy. In his 1852 paper. mathematical but at the same time practical. certainly not more. reversible and irreversible. and he came to the new and remarkable conclusion that his friend Thomson had actually done all the hard work in 1852 and that Clausius’s subsequent contributions were at best minor clarifications. At least that is what his published Sketch declared. he told Glasgow students that “the art of reading mathematical books is judicious skipping. entropy stayed the same. Tait had also managed to write a book of his own. of physics in all its scope and variety.” For scientists. Clausius. Thomson had imagined a series of steps constituting a reversible cycle. had come up with the name “entropy” and phrased the second law of thermodynamics as the rule that entropy never decreases. He praised Joule as the originator of the first law and made light of Mayer’s claims. . The notion of reversibility goes back to Carnot.” More bluntly. His Sketch of Thermodynamics appeared in 1868. in other words. Two years later Clausius had written down the modern definition of entropy but didn’t yet extend its utility to all processes. had made a start on understanding the thermodynamics of irreversibility. during the intervening years. Remarkably.

” The letter from Clausius to Tait apparently does not survive. . Dummheit [stupidity] and Hinterlist [cunning. merely a set of detached links! How you let it be printed in such a state I can’t imagine.” When he came to write his Sketch. Tait castigated him for providing an inadequate proof of the fact that the sum of the heat transfers divided by temperature was zero around a reversible cycle. Tait had corresponded a good deal .” Calm consideration not being Tait’s cup of tea. Clausius evidently responded.” This may well have been from Clausius. and critically. In letters to Thomson in January 1868. though. Everybody sees you had the proof in your eye. . If then you divest your writing of its polemical garb it will in my opinion be thankfully received and will have more influence than with this polemic. . . which rather startles me—you having told me how meek and mild he appeared to you. divided by the temperature at which the exchange took place. trickery] are pretty strong—and I don’t at all like his application of ‘auffällig’ [egregious] to myself. I wish to avoid strife and to produce a useful little text-book. I had better burn it at once. Tait suppressed his private reservations and declared blithely that the general definition of what became entropy was. referring to an angry missive from an unnamed German: “I enclose a letter just rec’d from him. but there is a fragment from Tait to Thomson. but. It “is no proof at all—not even a chain of reasoning. of the right date. In writing the book. if Clausius is right. . Helmholtz tried in a more gentlemanly way to dissuade Tait: “For my part I must say that I have a great aversion to all priority quarrels. This is the germ of a formal definition of entropy. was zero. The sum of these increments. after all.CONTROVERSIES 209 and for each step he calculated the heat going in or out of the system. However. but whether you or the printers omitted a leading step I can’t of course tell. he showed. clearly stated in Thomson’s 1852 paper. He sent drafts of the relevant sections to both Clausius and Helmholtz. Thomson did not draw any special attention to this quantity but only used it in the course of obtaining other results. because Tait later wrote to Helmholtz professing no wicked intent: “Is it fair to ask you whether you think with Clausius that my little pamphlet will only do me harm? .” as his biographer put it. he went ahead and published his Sketch of Thermodynamics “in all its individuality.

Thomson then added a short note of his own to say. Thomson had remarked that his theory of the telegraph was “like any theory. beginning “My dear Thomson. if he really believed it. leaving him only with the honor of providing the name. with hindsight. without elaboration. He arranged for the publication in the Philosophical Magazine of a supposedly personal letter. when the laws of thermodynamics had become more or less obvious. cogently. that he agreed with Tait’s assessment. Perhaps. Thus he allowed the idea to get into print that he had come up with the concept of entropy. He argued. whereas in scanning carefully Thomson’s published works on thermodynamics he allowed himself to infer what Thomson really meant to say. Thomson was content to fit empirical knowledge into a system of elementary theo- . marked his great flaw as a scientist. Clausius now protested in the pages of the Philosophical Magazine that Tait and Maxwell had managed to bestow all the credit for working out the concept of entropy on Thomson. Tait’s method was to take every statement by Clausius strictly at face value. he imagined that he had known the truth all along.” in which Tait evaded Clausius’s arguments and reinstalled Thomson as the inventor of entropy. Tait responded by ignoring the main point and making some nitpicking remarks about Clausius’s original definition of entropy. perhaps. without ever quite saying so explicitly. Thomson was colluding in a significant reinterpretation of history. who absorbed Tait’s views on Clausius and Thomson and the second law and promoted them in his own Theory of Heat. that Thomson did not make the important step of extending his analysis to irreversible as well as reversible processes. To ponder the wider significance of the quantity that eventually became entropy would to him. in his dispute with Whitehouse over the Atlantic cable. Tait being so persuasive and insistent. published in 1871. By going along with Tait. which predictably met with Tait’s disapproval. merely a combination of established truths. Perhaps. although he hadn’t quite managed to say it clearly at the time. have been going beyond the established truths. Thomson really came to believe his friend’s rereading of his own papers. Under this provocation Clausius then embarked on his own book about thermodynamics.210 Degrees Kelvin with Maxwell.” This. Another tedious dispute followed. Thomson’s response to this was indirect and curious. Many years earlier.

scolded the geologists again for not paying enough attention. Tait. could see this even more clearly.” . Unable to understand why his brilliant friend Thomson had not taken his ideas to their seemingly obvious conclusion. But brilliance and imagination are not the same thing. Thomson accepted the invitation to serve as president and delivered the meeting’s keynote address. and bring zoology within the range of Natural Philosophy. not appalled or paralyzed by them. and then moved on to biology. he paused to mark the passing of a number of notable scientists that year and summarized recent progress in his own field. *** In 1871 the British Association convened in Edinburgh for its annual meeting. and Thomson did not shy away from pronouncing on a number of other issues. looking back. in his obscure way) went further and perceived a universal second law of thermodynamics and a general conception of entropy. The inanimate sciences. who came on the scene after the early confusion had been swept away. and that is precisely why they deserve credit for seeing where the truth lay even though their evidence was incomplete and their reasoning loose. and are struggling boldly and laboriously to pass out of the mere ‘Natural History stage’ of their study. “The essence of science. as is well illustrated by astronomy and cosmical physics. physics. It must have been galling to Thomson to understand. scorned Clausius and Mayer and others because they made large statements on insufficient evidence. The earnest naturalists of the present day are. from phenomena which have actually come under observation. So they did. consists in inferring antecedent conditions.CONTROVERSIES 211 retical rules. Clausius (and also Rankine. In biology the difficulties of successfully acting up to this ideal are prodigious. and anticipating future evolutions. with Thomson’s implicit agreement. however. He restated his restrictive views on the age of the earth and the sun. In keeping with tradition. Tait. Tait decided that in fact he must have but simply hadn’t bothered to write it all down explicitly. But presidency of the BA was a forum from which he could address all of science. that he could have gone further. offered a model for scientific inquiry in general. Thomson maintained.

arising. They therefore balked at the idea of new permanent traits. Criticism of this sort he had perhaps learned from his friend Fleeming Jenkin. But then he deliberately omitted Darwin’s mention of the “origin of species by natural selection” . he would admit the possibility of natural selection but would not go so far as to endorse evolution in its full scope. whose 1867 review of the Origin of Species had made a number of intelligent observations hampered by a crabbed vision of what evolution involved. and so on. in Darwin’s theory.212 Degrees Kelvin Having praised biologists for taking at least baby steps on the way to becoming real scientists. Thomson took a similar line. if it is passed down from one generation to the next. still less new species. Jenkin imagined a white man shipwrecked on an island inhabited by savages. Thomson moved on to criticisms of Darwinian theory. would always be squelched by what statisticians call regression to the mean. This had a nice mechanistic ring to it. Jenkin argued. In essence. Such would be the fate of any superior individual within a larger population. and so failed to grasp the idea that a small genetic advantage. In a nutshell. his innate advantages would then be diluted and dissipated among his numerous offspring. Some would prosper. But by virtue of his very desirability. Jenkin had conceived of a fixed population within which a limited number of genetic elements (as we would now call them) shuffled about from one generation to the next. But if evolution meant the appearance of wholly new kinds of creatures from those already existing. or even more radically the appearance of life when none had existed before. better-adapted individuals would always be overwhelmed by the common herd. which appealed to Thomson. can gradually come to dominate a population. By natural selection he conceived of the idea that creatures with slightly different qualities might be more or less well suited to their conditions. He and Jenkin apparently believed that genetic elements would be randomly reassigned at each generation. others would suffer. He quoted with approval Darwin’s famous sentence about the “grandeur in this view of life” as the result of selection acting upon and enlarging some original stock. then he would not go down that road. acquiring many wives. The unquestionably superior qualities of this Crusoe would lead to him being acclaimed king. Thus he believed advantage. He offered an example illustrative of his time.

The hypothesis that life originated on this earth through moss-grown fragments from the ruins of another world may seem wild and visionary. but he leaned toward the view that human origins are a question apart. . in biology.CONTROVERSIES 213 because. one such stone falling upon it might. but only up to a point. after not too many years. If at the present instant no life existed upon this earth. He would not accept that life can come into being from inanimate matter without the agency of some higher power. In the end he finessed the difficult question of where creation ends and natural selection takes over. only pushed the question offstage and allowed .” The notion that life originated elsewhere in the universe didn’t solve the problem of its origin. . In short. many worlds of life besides our own. as he said. In Thomson’s view the evidence of creation and design was all around us. He would not relinquish the role of a Creator and suggested that Bishop Paley’s old argument from design had been too lightly abandoned. lead to its becoming covered with vegetation.” No clear argument emerges from Thomson’s summary. . because Darwin’s theory of variation and selection appealed to him as a rational mechanism acting on living organisms. becomes covered with vegetation. all I maintain is that it is not unscientific. by what we blindly call natural causes. we must regard it as probable in the highest degree that there are countless seed-bearing meteoritic stones moving about through space. He observed that when a barren lava flow. And yet he did not want to say that there is only creation and design. Thus he introduced his new suggestion: “Hence and because we all confidently believe that there are at present. if evolution there has been. but neither would he say that the Creator assembled life on earth directly in its present form. This seems to me as sure a teaching of science as the law of gravitation. rather than spontaneously originating on the cooling rocks. He noted that material from elsewhere rains constantly on to the earth in the form of meteors. He accepted that natural selection can work in creating some of the variety of life. and have been from time immemorial. “I have always felt that this hypothesis does contain the true theory of evolution. we take it for granted that life has blown in from elsewhere. he wanted to have a scientific account of life.” On a related point Thomson was adamant: “Dead matter cannot become living without coming under the influence of matter previously alive.

and drew a veil over the hard dilemmas that his firm belief in science threw up before him. He believed in the universal and encompassing power of scientific reasoning and felt no hesitation in applying the certain rules of mathematical physics in areas beyond the realms in which he had made his reputation. was his model for science in general. Yet when powers of scientific analysis led him inexorably toward a fundamental question—inanimate origin of life or creator?—he abruptly became timid. indeed. . Nevertheless this proposal by Thomson is characteristic of his thinking. Biologists and geologists were skeptical of the idea of viable germs of life flying about through the empty reaches of space. Huxley commented that unless Thomson believed that life came to earth in the form of elephants and acorns and crocodiles and coconuts. a largely evolutionary explanation for the present array of species remained necessary.214 Degrees Kelvin Thomson to imagine that whatever happened subsequently on earth adhered to his mechanistic view of science. Churchmen were disappointed that Thomson didn’t denounce Darwin altogether. Mathematical physics. His audience reacted with a mixture of puzzlement and amusement.

sufficient to make it a floating residence for half a dozen people.” Thomson lavished money on his new toy: 12 pairs of sheets. 10 tablecloths. 215 T . The cotton fabric seems to be too hygroscopic to be suitable for sea-going places. and dinnerware. G. Tait for many years and bore four sons and a daughter. after anxious consideration and consultation with naval experts. he explained to Mrs.5 COMPASS he Lalla Rookh. and with the guidance of Mrs. Thomson playfully applied scientific and mathematical principles to the matter of equipping his vessel. tablecloths. sheets. Tait’s biographer. “has. and dusters Mrs. been decided in favour of linen. 31/2 dozen table napkins of double damask.” He wanted the towels and the larger bath sheets to be made of the same material. Tait herself. and whatever quantity of kitchen towels. Tait deemed necessary. objecting to the practice that “sometimes bath sheets are made thicker (apparently with the idea of maintaining a constant proportion of thickness to length or breadth) which is a mistake. The question of fabric for the bedsheets. Tait was fitted out with draperies. Of Mrs. cloths. little is known except that she put up with P. underwent repairs and modifications. Tait. 5 dozen towels. during Thomson’s first winter of ownership. She was to place orders for all these furnishings and advise Thomson of whatever else should be acquired.

” Tyndall recorded in his diary. and on what basis Tait made his selection. smiled and stretched out his hand. and walked in. Shook hands with Tait afterwards at St. William and James Porter. G. Even Tait softened a little. After leaving Cambridge and before returning to Edinburgh. John.” he wrote. He urged Helmholtz to come to the British Association meeting at Edinburgh in early August then join him in a scientific party to cruise the Hebrides and western isles on the Lalla Rookh. blocked my passage. while James after a time entered the church. spends a paragraph describing how Tait had become friendly at Cambridge with two Belfast brothers. “There will be a splendid row. “Thomson met me in the Kinnaird Hall. and even Tyndall. where he maintained close connections with the Porter family. Tait was for six years a professor in Belfast. Tyndall had encountered Thomson at Dundee. A third brother. Tait approached Tyndall with the most comradely offer he could manage. which was that they should march into battle together. Thomson easily put any past unpleasantness behind him. which is some consolation. expressed in a word my gratification at meeting him. at any rate. who in their years were third and seventh wranglers respectively. Knott relates. probably he could not conceive that anyone might bear a grudge. A few years later a German astronomer by the name of Zöllner published a Treatise on Comets in which he attacked all and sundry. the book has produced singularly little distur- . Andrews. with whom he and Tait had clashed over the allotment of credit for the laws of thermodynamics. when the BA met there in 1867. Both tutored for a while at Peterhouse. his opponent on evolution and the age of the earth and sun. he “married one of the sisters of his Peterhouse friends. Knott. what her name was. I grasped it. had a distinguished career in the Indian Civil Service. Thomson was looking forward to sailing adventures as soon as the Glasgow teaching session ended. During this time. By the spring of 1871. not only Thomson and Tait but also Helmholtz and Tyndall. They were very cordial to me. But Tyndall would not be drawn. “Whether it is that the fire of my life has fallen to a cinder. Knott fails to say. He proposed to invite not only Maxwell and Tait (if he could be lured away from the golf course) but also Huxley. his hometown.” Which one.216 Degrees Kelvin C. William eventually becoming master of the college.

King. beginning: . and Lucretius. D.” Stokes said Tyndall was surely wrong: Atoms have no emotion or thought. This was blasphemy in some quarters. which he chose not to print as the exchange had “assumed somewhat of a personal tone. Going back to Democritus.” The following week the editor referred to further communications he had received from both parties.” He mentioned Giordano Bruno. Trust me C. J.” he replied. rather than resorting to vague and unquestioning invocations of divine intervention. without ever once showing that he possessed the manhood to acknowledge a committed wrong. is through and through an honest high-minded man. but he urged his audience to think of the question rationally. He had no specific explanation of how this could come about.COMPASS 217 bance in my feelings. typically. “Ten years ago I should have been at the throat of Zöllner. Epicurus. Forbes. he praised those thinkers throughout history who had striven for rational. The subsequent sniping spilled over into the pages of Nature.” Tyndall shot back. Coming up to date he praised Darwin and the modern biologists who sought to explain the origins of life through science. In September 1873. over a theory of glacier motion in which Tyndall and Forbes had been on opposite sides. I would rather see you and Clausius friends than Zöllner and myself. so how could life made only of atoms acquire such things? Maxwell. Thomson wrote to his brotherin-law. material explanations of natural phenomena.” In Belfast the following year Tyndall served as president of the BA and gave an address that excited controversy and repudiation. the Rev. dating back to the 1840s. but not now.” Rebuffed. produced a poetical satire. describing Tait as “this man whose blunders and whose injustice have been so often reduced to nakedness. rather than resorting to a “mob of gods and demons. burned at the stake by the Church for his heresy in promoting Copernicus and his sun-centered universe. Tait found an opportunity to resume hostilities a few years later. he disinterred a dispute. he even suggested that human beings and their intelligence might have an origin in material processes. Writing the life of his predecessor at Edinburgh. that Tyndall’s suggestion was “especially inappropriate. Tait mocked “the flow of word-painting and righteous indignation which Dr Tyndall so abundantly possesses.

A brilliant scientist and solver of problems.1 Thomson was the opposite. Prefer ewers of water and drawers of wood. came from a divine impulse. especially human beings. who talked of what is now called social Darwinism—the idea that civilization is itself a manifestation of evolutionary progress. 1Another . the atoms. (This is a clever play also on Lucretius. His work on the committee investigating the loss of the noteworthy speaker at the 1874 BA meeting was the all-around Victorian sage and pontificator Herbert Spencer. made gods in the likeness of men . and that was that. because he did not like to speculate where he had no solid ground beneath him. We moderns. he could not or would not look very far forward. the parsons. a great scientist.”) To the mechanistic thinkers of the late 19th century it seemed of course impossible. who managed things then. . though a number of unimaginative philosophers cling steadfastly to the old view. The combination of technical acuity and imagination in one mind is a rare thing indeed. as councillors do. Therefore he believed that life. . Tyndall was not. The problem is still not solved: Most scientists today would agree with Tyndall’s proposition that intelligent life can. reversing arrangements so rude. . in his specific achievements. *** During these years Thomson adopted an increasingly capacious mode of living. somehow. He then mocked Tyndall’s supposition that collections of atoms could do things that single atoms could not: For by laying their heads all together. Being handy with hammer and chisel. who argued in De rerum natura that atoms move at random “for surely [they] did not hold council . . .218 Degrees Kelvin In the very beginnings of science. arise from inanimate origins. yet in his general views he was forward looking and imaginative. This drew another smart verse from Maxwell: The ancients made enemies saved from the slaughter Into hewers of wood and drawers of water. contrary to common sense as well as reason. flexing their keen minds. that inanimate matter could of its own accord turn into sentient creatures. May combine to express an opinion to every one of them new. . .

Traditionally. taking the train to London and staying there at the Athenaeum club when necessary but living on his yacht as much as he could. This he never did. Weymouth. technical. his devil-may-care attitude. although he managed to run the Lalla Rookh aground some years later. and Southampton on the south coast of England. and William Bottomley opined (after a tough stint against a stiff east wind) that the best part of yachting was going ashore. When a break from business in London presented itself. His voyaging had a certain evangelical quality. Bottomley’s father.COMPASS 219 Captain took him to London in the summer of 1871. an incident he amusingly recounted to a friend as an experiment showing that wood yielded more easily than rock. faster. Thomson set about devising easier. Back in London. he wanted to improve and rationalize the science of sailing. between work for the Admiralty and additional duties as examiner for the India Telegraph Service. commercial problem that came his way.” Captain Flarty muttered to him once as they fought gale force winds. where King left to be replaced by the other brother-in-law. or perhaps because of. but now he shunned the train and instead sailed on his new yacht through the Irish Sea and around Cornwall to Dartmouth. He persuaded friends and family members to accompany him. and more accurate methods. Despite. worked as hard as they did. Thomson took these remarks as jests and assured Mrs. having learned. Thomson was greatly loved by his crew. began experiments on sounding devices. and was eager to learn the arts of navigation. cheerily confident they would share his enthusiasm for life afloat. He appeared on deck in the middle of the night to make sure the watches were at their posts. sailing across the Bay of Biscay. He took his nephew James Bottomley and brother-in-law David King with him as far as Penzance. Inevitably. he took off for Lisbon and. He threw himself into sailing with the same energy he used to attack any scientific. but for an accurate sounding the ship had to come to a full halt. King said that he would have enjoyed Lalla Rookh more had she remained on the slip at Greenock. He urged his captain and crew on in conditions they thought dangerous. sailors threw a weighted line over the side to judge the depth of the water. he arranged a reunion . “You will not rest till you have your boat at the bottom. Tait that everyone had had a splendid time. He talked to the men without pretension.

Tait is a curious kind of savage—exists here. In the few quiet moments he could find. I had to go along with him. Sunday. It produced in him “an indescribably sad impression. who was preparing to take up his new appointment as Cavendish professor in Cambridge and who was in any case the exact antithesis of the jolly boating fellow. he might “learn (at its headquarters) the mysteries of GOLF!” Helmholtz failed to succumb. Thomson had not got around to making the place presentable. Andrews where.” In the dining room he came across “an exceedingly fine and expressive portrait of her. as if no one cared about the place. First. “It was a strange reunion. in which he resumed his attack on the geologists and biologists and proposed his cometary idea for the origin of life. as did Maxwell.” In explaining the strange game to his wife. would he be brought around to rational matters. uncarpeted and unpainted. This was a faculty house. though he didn’t go to church either. but Thomson found the occasion oddly unsettling. so he says. while Thomson. but he came over from Germany later in August to go sailing with Thomson. Following Margaret’s death. Tait knows nothing here besides golf. . waiting to be set out. though. arranged where the sailing party should meet. Helmholtz’s scientific precision deserted him: He reckoned that each hole was about one English mile long and that the players walked 10 miles during a round. Helmholtz described to his wife the unfinished rooms. he went to St. out at sea somewhere. and only today. and it is too full of sadness for the present. . He wrote to his wife: “Mr. and the furniture stacked here and there. They got together and played a little music. as Tait had avidly proposed. . usually when he was alone on the Lalla Rookh. It can never again be what it was. like a return from another world. he struggled to compose his presidential address for the British Association’s 1871 Edinburgh meeting. Helmholtz went on to stay briefly at Thomson’s new house in Glasgow. part of the new university buildings. . Other duties had prevented Helmholtz from attending the BA meeting.220 Degrees Kelvin with several Cambridge friends he had not seen for a quarter of a century. only for his muscles. My first swings succeeded. but after that I hit only ground or air. Huxley and Tyndall declined Thomson’s invitation to a postmeeting jaunt on the Lalla Rookh.” The past—Thomson had no time for it. when he dared not play.

and Helmholtz went off to stroll up and down the gently rolling deck with as much “unsteady elegance” as he could muster. of himself or Thomson or both. a very lovely spot on a bay between the loneliest mountains. The dinner conversation faltered.” Helmholtz had lost his first wife 12 years earlier. on Loch Fyne. without higher guidance. Before long he would have to return to Glasgow to start the new session. a couple of nephews. Assorted nephews and sisters-in-law joined and left at various places. The evidence of Thomson’s loss brought back memories. all by himself. Helmholtz thought. I was very sad and could hardly restrain my tears. She painted a little watercolor of him and the Thomson brothers observing birds out at sea. The house could wait until then. He observed. and their life is left desolate. he immediately disappeared to his cabin to work at some problem in his notebook. where they saw highland games before sailing back to Glasgow and thence to Belfast where they picked up James Thomson. Oddest of all. and I think that if the .COMPASS 221 and below it the couch where she used to lie. Helmholtz found this “a lonely property. The Thomsons. and attending meetings in London that the state of his Glasgow house had drifted from his mind. was that after Thomson had assembled his guests at dinner aboard his yacht the night before they were to set off toward Skye. They recrossed the Irish Sea and sailed about the west coast of Scotland until they reached the Blackburns’ house at Rushven. “How would it be if I accustomed the Berliners to the same proceedings?” he asked his wife. with puzzlement or perhaps envy. and the boisterous Blackburns and their children constituted a “friendly and unconstrained” party. on the Moidart peninsula. It is very sad when men lose their wives. To him the empty house evoked Thomson’s now empty life—except that Thomson had been so busy equipping his new yacht. to sit with his green notebook and make calculations. that “a husband who is no longer in his first youth feels uncomfortable when he wanders about in the world. Helmholtz was taken aback by Thomson’s habit of abruptly withdrawing from the games and conversations. Helmholtz joined Thomson on the Lalla Rookh at Inverary. and a couple of years later had married a considerably younger woman. sailing to the south coast and to Portugal and back. and her coverlet.” Jemima Blackburn’s animal and bird drawings impressed him.

” How could a man capable of founding thermodynamics and laying the groundwork for modern electromagnetic theory fritter . They had density. he would happily pile on more complications. He had long corresponded with Stokes about the numerous physical and mathematical issues arising in the motion of fluids: streamlines. mind. rotation. treated by mathematical physics. He had no fear of mathematics and no particular aesthetic sense of it either. “Now. perhaps more. and so on. Problems of navigation gave his intellect a full range of scientific and practical matters to attack. eddies. a spherical cow? While sailing. it would not be particularly beautiful. Fluids. When Thomson had to leave the yacht for a while to attend to some problem ashore. sailing as often as he could but relying on it too as a refuge from the endless demands on his time. Thomson loved this kind of thing. all of which could change with temperature. Thomson wouldn’t have understood the joke. he and Helmholtz had indulged in a sort of competition to see who could correctly explain the behavior of various waves and ripples they observed from the deck of the Lalla Rookh. at least for the ideal case of a perfectly spherical cow. viscosity. but would be very practical. The summer months he arranged to spend as much time as possible on the Lalla Rookh. Helmholtz. Merely being at sea presented interesting questions. or perhaps not. If he found that a model of some problem wasn’t yielding the full range of observed behavior. you’re not to work at waves while I’m away. The six winter months in Glasgow he taught and lectured and worked on scientific matters.” For Thomson nothing could be more refreshing than immersing himself in practical questions. There is an old joke about a theoretical physicist asked to come up with improvements in milk production on a dairy farm. but was deficient in intellectual taste. he said jocularly. turbulence. What do you mean. Underneath all these phenomena lay Newton’s simple laws of motion. waves. He loved the sea as much as he loved natural philosophy.” A later commentator disparaged Thomson as someone who “had immense intellectual strength. who after months of secretive analysis announces that he has solved the problem in its entirety. time-tested and elementary. and not at all refreshing. elasticity. could be idealized as incompressible or more realistically given some degree of compressibility. but in fluids these laws manifested themselves in an enormous variety of ways.222 Degrees Kelvin world were peopled with men only.

But when about a third of the wire had been retrieved. and between Carnot and Joule’s views of heat and work. you can cut off the blood supply and cause pain very easily. but Thomson’s idea was that the depth could be taken much more quickly than with a weight on a hemp rope. a resolver of difficulties. By resolving certain contradictions between Faraday and the French electrical theorists. Thomson had experimented with a sounding device consisting of a 30pound lead weight attached to a reel of thin piano wire that could be spun with ease from the stern of the ship. so the interruption to progress would be minimal. Thomson realized. so that if the whole length were wound in. agreeing with the chart. Even though the tension on the wire was at most 50 pounds. *** On his first voyage with the Lalla Rookh through the Bay of Biscay. he had found a way forward. Thomson devised a 2Try winding a length of dental floss around a finger. as before. the effect was additive: Each turn of the reel added that much tension. An accurate sounding demanded that the ship come to a halt.600 fathoms. in the end.COMPASS 223 away his time and mental energy in explaining the ripples on the Sound of Mull. In a sense his contributions to thermodynamics and electromagnetism were the aberration. But having gotten over the immediate difficulty.2 The crew had to stop and haul in something like a mile of thin wire by hand. or tinkering with devices to measure the depth of the ocean from a moving boat? But to Thomson a problem was a problem was a problem. . The design owed something to his experience with the machines that played out telegraph cables. his interest in telegraphy and navigation the more characteristic examples of his talents. Thomson’s attention turned elsewhere. the reel showed alarming signs of strain and began to buckle. Even with light tension. over 100 tons of pressure would squeeze the reel. who completed the journey. The wire unspooled nicely. and he got a rapid and accurate depth—2. It was others. Thomson was a practical thinker. not a metaphysician. Whatever puzzle came before him engaged his interest. His first attempt almost came to grief because of an elementary difficulty that he was “much ashamed” not to have thought of beforehand. illuminated the path that theoretical physics must take.

Walker. Thomson took out a patent on his sounding machine in 1876. there were licensing fees. he attached a simple pressure gauge to the end of the wire. but soon afterward started work on a different system. he assumed that the weight dropped vertically from the point of release while the ship steamed on. This yielded directly the maximum depth attained. royalties. and although bureaucracy proved sluggish and reluctant. F. But Thomson. This pressure-recording device was nothing new. Thomson found that he could take “flying soundings” with reasonable accuracy. which indicated the greatest pressure it had experienced. another trick that came from cabling expeditions. and the patent for the chemical marker belonged to a T. and 1885 stamped Thomson’s name on the system. supplied the means to raise and lower the device easily and reliably. visual inspection revealed how far the water had made it up the tube. and coming up with a working system—an empirical counterpart to his theoretical achievements in thermodynamics and electromagnetism. Thomson tried dyes that got washed away as the water rose. A table converting length of wire and ship’s speed into depth relieved the sailor from needing to know his square roots. Again. The ship’s speed being known. water advanced up the tube. Only with the advent of echo-sounding sonar devices in the early 20th century did new technology supplant his basic design. he succeeded in getting his device adopted by the Royal Navy and other navies. To mark the water level. As it descended and pressure increased. A series of patents in 1880. Thomson showed his knack for putting together disparate elements. 1883. with his piano wires and pulleys (adapted from cabling machinery). Of course.224 Degrees Kelvin secondary pulley that would take up the tension and allow the wire to be retrieved. weighted so as to keep the open end facing down. squeezing the air into a smaller volume. Instead of a passive weight. application of Pythagoras’s theorem provided the depth from the distance traveled and the length of wire played out. but eventually he settled on a reactive chemical that changed color on contact with water. and consult- . solving some practical difficulties. Essentially this was nothing more than an open-ended glass tube with some air in it. Two years later. With a light wire unreeling freely. sailing to Brazil on the cable ship Hooper with his old telegraph colleague Fleeming Jenkin. When the pressure gauge was retrieved.

” R. They both seemed to think it was quite a joke. and when the thing was ready he was equally assiduous in maintaining his legal rights and establishing his income. anchored a mile and a half distant. To repair electrical flaws in cable coiled aboard the Hooper. L. who was visiting his Glasgow laboratory. luckily. which sent it flying across the room. Sir William Thomson. 9) . Thomson interpreted the Morse code flapping: “Goodbye. goodbye.” 3Thomson was equally blithe about the occasion when he almost killed his friend Helmholtz. and almost by his own act. Jenkin’s horse darted unexpectedly and almost pushed Thomson’s over the cliff edge.COMPASS 225 ing opportunities. (To this day the Blandy company produces madeira and other fortified wines. The moment passed. never mentioned the incident and apparently thought no more of it.) Blandy had two daughters. Stevenson relates. one of the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa. Thomson whacked it with a hammer. who learned Morse code from the visiting technical men. Helmholtz merely reported to his wife that Thomson had done his hat in. it was a memory that haunted him. Anecdote has it that when the Hooper steamed from the island to lay a cable to Brazil. While they were out one day riding on the steep island hills. by contrast. Peering through his eyeglass. “No harm was done. (Königsberger. no reason to dwell on it. ch. a local businessman and prominent islander. The 1873 trip to Brazil had another satisfactory outcome for Thomson. Jenkin always remembered Madeira with a pang of alarm.” Jenkin idolized Thomson almost to the point of worship and could hardly bear to think he might have killed him. It was past. “but for the moment Fleeming saw his friend hurled into the sea. however. The women signaled with a lamp from their house to the Hooper. left Madeira with a budding romance. Showing off the sturdiness of a heavy rotating iron disc in some magnetic experiment. his head. and he was safe. the expedition paused for a couple of weeks on Madeira. It took off Helmholtz’s hat but not. Thomson’s attention was drawn to a white cloth fluttering from a window of a house overlooking the port. 1906. He took pride in being meticulous as well as ingenious. There Jenkin and Thomson made the acquaintance of Charles Blandy. Thomson spent many long days aboard the Lalla Rookh making sure his system was both reliable and practical for the average sailor.3 Thomson. Thomson.

Fanny Thomson was. that he seemed to be an unhappy or melancholic or brooding kind of man. He and Frances Anna Blandy. Margaret Thomson had been. When I came away in July I did not think happiness possible for me. Thomson was two days shy of his fiftieth birthday. and all manner of diversions. sensitive. His new wife was in her mid-30s. or that life could bring any happiness. even before her years of ailing. Even now I think you will be glad for my sake. When you know Fanny you will be able to really congratulate me. and indeed I had not begun even to wish for it. where Thomson had so often spent . in the Lalla Rookh. She would gently kick her husband’s shin under the table if he seemed about to reach into his pocket for a green notebook. artistic soul. 1874. She was a capable. cheery and gregarious. Fanny gave him a life appropriate to his circumstances. when I found that I had not hoped in vain. She traveled with him frequently and made her own social arrangements while he attended scientific or business meetings. and he gratefully participated.226 Degrees Kelvin The message drew Thomson back the following May. they were clearly very different. at any time in his life. a refined. . . but Thomson himself had little time for purely social matters. Though little is known about either his first wife or his second. Thomson’s chance encounter the previous year evidently awakened feelings that his frenetic activity had concealed even from him. . menus. . . Hope grew stronger till yesterday. in the British Consular Chapel on Madeira. on the Ayrshire coast near Largs. Fanny was a bright soul and charmed Thomson’s brother and sister and all the nieces and nephews. seating arrangements. Later that year the newlyweds bought a piece of land at Netherhall. but his long years with Margaret had been mostly toil and worry. Thomson’s increasing wealth and reputation made him the center of a widening circle of notable acquaintances in business and politics as well as science. were married on June 24. But I carried away an image and an impression from which the idea came. like her husband.” No one ever remarked of Thomson. attending to flowers. and unlike him socially accomplished and elegant. as soon as the Glasgow session had ended. The day after Fanny accepted his proposal he wrote to his sister: “When I came to Madeira in the Hooper it had never seemed possible that such an idea could enter my mind. She loved to organize dinner parties. . known as Fanny. outgoing. practical woman.

G. Thomson displayed a seemingly infinite capacity for doing things. and new house along with all his teaching. He spent a couple of weeks working with his assistant in odd moments and came up with four minutes’ worth of material. and am obliged to do nearly everything I wish in black and white by dictation.COMPASS 227 summer months. near Newcastle. After the house was finished he used it as a venue for experiments in domestic science. With his new wife. who helped him in the lab and with his writing. No doubt in those days a letter addressed to Thomson at Netherhall. then in its third year. who had a dynamo installed at a waterfall on his property). Thompson refers to the house itself as Netherhall. But Netherhall is the name of a small community. Thomson at first used large storage batteries of a French design. When it came time to deliver his lecture. . Largs would reach the recipient. C. He explained to one colleague.4 He supervised carpenters and masons. research. It was probably the second house in Great Britain to be equipped with electricity (the first was Cragside. A stenographer took down his talk and the lecture reads loosely but is cogent and lively. and so much laboratory work. built by the industrialist Sir William Armstrong. former Glasgow pupils. I can seldom sit down to write anything. A green notebook accompanied him at all times. By the early 1880s he was experimenting with generators running from the domestic gas supply and running an impressive variety of incandescent lamps as well as electrical experiments. Knott on one occasion was with Thomson and Tait in Edinburgh and had agreed to write up Thomson’s remarks to the Royal Society of Edinburgh for publication in Nature. similar to a modern lead-acid car battery. and commercial activity. that I am kept constantly standing and walking about. he started with the few sentences he had painfully composed. He had difficulty sum- 4S. which he wrote enthusiastically about to the Times. then winged it. not Thomson’s house. Even before his marriage he had begun to rely on a string of assistants. P. He undertook the design and construction of a splendid house. new yacht.” Early in 1874 he gave his presidential address to the Society of Telegraph Engineers. a practice many later writers have picked up on. as he could never resist the urge to improvise. “as I have so many engagements. with the result that everything took longer than it need have done.

The germ of the mechanism came from James Thomson. In a letter to the Times and in contributions to the British Association. But it was William Thomson who combined the theoretical and practical elements. The Analyser was another characteristic invention. Thomson showed an unswervable ability to pursue technical and practical projects to a fine state of perfection. This was important information for the Admiralty as the Royal Navy stationed itself across the globe. developed his brother’s innovation into a more general calculating device. It had been established that tides at any location could be analyzed into a series of harmonic components. He badgered naval men and civil servants whenever he had an opportunity. based on an invention by his brother. It led him also . Just wait till the Nature report is published—that fellow always reports me well. This entailed complex mathematical analysis of measured tides and further mathematics to make a prediction. Thomson stared perplexedly into space for a while. as he had found that sailors coming across a light were frequently so unsure of their location that they didn’t know which hazard they were near. struggling to recollect.228 Degrees Kelvin marizing Thomson’s largely ad lib presentation and approached him the next day for further enlightenment. he had suggested that each lighthouse should signal with a distinctive Morse code pattern. I’ll tell you what you should do. essentially a mechanical calculator. with Thomson taking a lead role. each component having a certain period and a magnitude. and using a set of cogs of appropriate sizes to mimic the components. With the machine correctly set. and the British Association had taken on tide prediction as an official project. anyone could predict future tides by cranking the handle. and his system was eventually adopted. for a specific location. notably Laplace in France and Airy in England. Since the late 1860s. The mathematics it embodied came from others. and produced a working machine that did exactly what it was supposed to do. in a way that demanded no expertise on the part of the operator. Around 1876. recast the mathematics into amenable form. from which tides could be predicted with good accuracy. Thomson had busied himself with an analysis of tide heights at various ports. Thomson devised his Tidal Harmonic Analyser.” For all the evidence of the dissipation of his intellect into innumerable half-completed researches. then had a sudden thought: “Oh.

who learned indirectly that Thomson wished the title to be changed to “Preliminary Description of Sir William Thomson’s Tide Predictor Constructed for the Indian Government. with the title “Preliminary Note on a New Tide-Predictor. so there would be no doubt who was the true inventor. a Mr. except that while riding on a train from Brighton to London. he had had the machine made by James White in Glasgow. in the end. but any of the hesitation and deference Thomson had shown 20 years earlier in dealing with Whitehouse’s claims over telegraph theory and instrumentation had long since vanished. on the other hand. Since about 1872. acknowledging Thomson only for one or two useful hints.” Thomson had instantly said. As Thomson explained the matter to Stokes. When the mechanical calculator came to be built. Roberts had the responsibility of working out such details as the correct numbers of teeth for the gears. Thomson picked up clues and hints wherever he could find them and .” This came to Stokes. Edward Roberts of the Nautical Almanac Office had assisted Thomson on the tidal prediction project by performing the tedious but routine calculations needed to obtain the magnitudes of harmonic components from observations at various ports around the world. The only innovations Roberts introduced into the predictor were bad ones. the design was due to him. Tower with whom he was traveling had suggested driving the machine with a chain-and-pulley mechanism originally devised by Charles Wheatstone for his old letter-printing telegraph receiver. Thomson said. He engaged White anyway to then start work on a predictor with additional improvements.COMPASS 229 into a petty dispute in which Thomson showed his increasingly inflexible assertion of his own priorities and interests. He wished. In 1879 he composed a short paper for the Proceedings of the Royal Society. in his editorial capacity. a superior instrument maker and a man he could trust. In the end it was published with its original title. but then Roberts began to speak of the Roberts tide predictor and claim that the important part of the invention was his. which he had to take out again.” Stokes then related to Thomson how “utterly surprised” he was that this “very mild and unobjectionable” change caused Roberts to fly into a huff and refuse to have the paper published in its new form. This little flap amounted to nothing much. “That is the very thing for me.

on Royal Navy expeditions to Australia in 1798 and 1801. noticed in 1538 that his compass needles twitched when heavy iron cannons were moved about the deck. First. Two and half centuries later William Wales. Iron ships still relied on compasses. the tide predictor. The problem was not new in Thomson’s day.230 Degrees Kelvin relied on assistants and engineers and technical men to help him refine his ideas and turn them to practical use. noticed the irresolute behavior of the ship’s compasses but failed to see the cause. Matthew Flinders systematically studied compass deviations and began to understand their origin. the signaling code for lighthouses—estimable innovations all. as slowly as it could decently manage. was the compass. He noticed particularly that the departure of a compass needle from magnetic north changed sign when the ship crossed the equator—that is. Commercial shipping rapidly changed from wood to steel. metal rivets made an appearance. perhaps originally from China. The essential navigational device. passed down from antiquity. an astronomer sailing with Captain Cook’s Resolution in the south Pacific in the 1770s. launched by Prince Albert in 1843. *** The sounding machine. but inferior both in importance and in the magnitude of bureaucratic struggle they entailed to the central element of Thomson’s career as a marine philosopher. João de Castro. At the beginning of the 19th century boats were almost wholly wooden. and the placement of the compass on the ship. he could do better. its latitude. The Royal Navy followed suit. Naturally. Wales reported that the compass direction drifted depending on the ship’s course. Ships ran aground because their compasses no longer pointed north but were deflected by the iron hulls and superstructure that carried them. the Great Britain. but concluded somewhat obtusely that there must be something wrong with the compasses. Maritime legend has it that a Portuguese captain. then a few strengthening iron beams were incorporated into hulls. was the world’s first fully iron-clad ocean-going ship. Finally. it . but the solutions devised thus far he found unsatisfactory. Brunel’s steamer. there was no question whose name would be attached to it. but iron had magnetic properties of its own. But when a finished product was ready for display to the world.

His thinking was that the iron in any ship. War being somewhat more gentlemanly in those days. finding the correct position by trial and error. His analysis attracted the interest of scientists but not naval men. without so far coming up with any systematic account of the cause or a practical method to deal with the deviations. There arose the practice of “swinging” a ship to quantify compass deviation. A properly placed “Flinders bar. With ample opportunity for reflection. Flinders died in 1814. If the earth is pictured as a giant bar magnet. a captain would use geographical land- . sailing the south seas. Flinders was able to publish his findings in the Proceedings of the Royal Society while still imprisoned. having been unable to submit his correction bar to practical scrutiny. Flinders had more time to ponder this problem than he might have liked. in particular because a plate that corrected compass error north of the equator was found. Freed in 1810. though it was scattered about in some complex pattern. then lines of magnetic force will emerge vertically at the poles and curve around the planet. The angle between the magnetic field and horizontal is the dip. that France and England were at war. Barlow’s system went into practice on a number of ships but didn’t succeed widely. Six years later Peter Barlow of the Royal Military Academy tried a similar scheme involving an iron plate positioned near the compass. would cancel the magnetic distortion produced by the ship.COMPASS 231 erred to one side in the northern hemisphere and to the other in the south. at least for officers. to magnify it in the southern hemisphere.” as it eventually became known. its magnetic poles coinciding approximately with the geographical poles. Unaware. leaving the compass to measure the true magnetic field of the earth. he came to the conclusion that compass deviation was related to the “dip” of the terrestrial magnetic field. perplexingly. he proposed correcting a compass by placing an iron bar adjacent to it. he was captured by the French in 1803 and remained a prisoner of war for several years. becoming parallel to the earth’s surface at the equator. at 40. would act to a first approximation like an iron rod at some fixed location relative to the compass. In the meantime other scientifically inclined navigators had confirmed and extended Flinders’s original analysis of the variation of errors with a ship’s course and latitude. In a suitable harbor.

instead of adding it—not as absurd as it sounds. out in the open sea. were often poorly built and unreliable from the outset. This itself was no easy matter: Swinging a ship was time consuming and required some independent way of establishing compass directions. so as to measure the discrepancy between the known direction and the compass indication. Barlow. south.232 Degrees Kelvin marks to align his ship north. a 130-foot-long iron paddle steamer with an enormous funnel 28 feet high. No satisfactory mechanical correction existed. with the recommendation to captains that they should swing their ships regularly. and correction tables had a way of confusing all but the most sophisticated seamen. Mistakes happened when a navigator subtracted a tabulated correction from a compass reading. would work anywhere on the globe. This was a crucial though dismaying discovery. Captain Edward Johnson of the Royal Navy investigated compass deviation on the Garryowen. without the benefit of a handy mnemonic. naval and commercial. and at a dozen or more compass points in between. and with the rule being different from one ship to another. on his own initiative. This assumed that the necessary correction. especially in the course of long voyages. This procedure yielded a table of corrections which the navigator then applied. which Flinders and others had already shown not to be the case. were lost every year—and the common sailor learned a great distrust of compasses of any kind (which. east. apart from the question of deviations). compass deviations were poorly understood but were undeniably getting larger as ships used increasing amounts of iron in their construction. Nor was the use of correction tables as straightforward as it might appear. to get true direction from compass reading. By the mid-1830s. The Royal Navy made it official policy to use correction tables rather than the Barlow plate and other unreliable devices. In 1835. He placed compasses at many points around the boat and swung it to measure deviation at different locations. measured in one place. Ships ran aground with staggering frequency—hundreds of British vessels. Flinders. . and west. he also set a number of compasses around the harbor where he was swinging the Garryowen and found that these too suffered deviations changing with the orientation of the ship. as the problem is much like puzzling out whether to put clocks forward or back when going from summertime to wintertime. Imaginatively. making matters worse.

forming in 1837 a Compass Committee to address this “evil so pregnant with mischief ”— namely. although with a growing number of iron components. which the following year asked Astronomer Royal George Airy to investigate deviation on the paddle-steamer Rainbow. compass deviations grew too. but working out its location required a difficult mathematical analysis. (In fact. immersed all the while in the earth’s magnetic field. Airy’s method was simple. In particular. The British Admiralty finally lumbered into action. the dismal performance of compasses on Her Majesty’s warships. when a ship corrected in England went south of the equator.) The Committee investigated all aspects of compass performance. As the amount of iron in ships grew larger. and one magnet was placed to make the compass point north as well. Johnson now concluded that in addition an iron ship had some permanent magnetism of its own. which perhaps provided a little fillip of opportunity for change and reform in the realm of officialdom. it acquired permanent magnetism that was then built into the ship under construction. Airy. which is why it affected compasses nearby. and worked out how to compensate for this interference by positioning two small bar magnets. The other magnet was positioned similarly by swinging the ship east-west. in nautical language. its compass fre- . one on the fore-aft line through the compass.) The technique seemed to work reasonably well. and commercial shippers (who showed more enthusiasm than the Admiralty for solving the problem.COMPASS 233 and others had taken it for granted that an iron ship passively distorted the magnetic field passing through it. being acutely aware that days lost in passage from navigation errors translated into lost business) hired Airy to install his correction system on a number of ships. Captain Johnson served on the Committee. concluded that compass deviation on the Rainbow came almost wholly from the ship’s permanent magnetism. and Airy’s method proved insufficient. Airy proved that a single magnet would correct the compass. a man of great mathematical skill but not altogether conversant with magnetic phenomena. (Queen Victoria came to the throne that same year. He speculated that as iron was heated and cooled and shaped and hammered. The ship was swung to point north. including basic design and quality control as well as deviation. the other laterally—athwartships. But the vessels he corrected were mainly of wooden construction.

Heeling error. and so the induced or soft magnetism changes too. in a way that depends on geometry and orientation. But the heeling error. is linked to the variation of error with latitude. Although Airy was able to earn handsome fees for correcting compasses (£100 or more per ship. An iron ship. or soft magnetism that depends (as Flinders had long ago found) on the ship’s position relative to the earth’s magnetic field—in other words. and these interact slowly with each other. just as bar magnets thrown randomly into a bag will alter each other’s magnetism over a period of time. on the other hand. each iron component has some permanent magnetism. its geometry relative to the earth’s magnetic field changes. the soft error can in principle be compensated by placing soft iron correctors. suitably placed. The simplest way to deal with this phenomenon is by thinking of the iron developing an induced magnetism in response to the external field. compared to his annual salary as astronomer royal of £500). gradually settling into a more or less permanent pattern.234 Degrees Kelvin quently became less trustworthy than if it had not been corrected at all. As Airy had calculated. acts on a compass in two ways: There is a fixed. introduces additional complication in placing the correctors. the hard magnetic error in a compass can be fixed with a couple of permanent magnets. moreover. It was found that an iron ship’s hard magnetism changed over the first few months. there is also heeling error. were posi- this is not quite true. which became significant only for fully iron-built ships. induced. he showed no enthusiasm for going into this line of business as the magnitude of the task became more apparent. but then largely lost interest. or hard magnetism and a variable. whose induced magnetism counteracts that of the ship as a whole. permanent. 5Even . As if this were not complication enough. on its latitude and heading. The reason is that permanent magnetism is not the whole story.5 Likewise. When the ship tilts to one side or the other. therefore. Such complications. A mass of iron distorts a magnetic field that passes through it. In a newly built ship. out of vertical. He acknowledged the importance of soft as well as hard magnetism and experimented with adding suitable iron correctors as well as magnets. since both depend on the angle with which the earth’s magnetic field passes through the ship.

but Smith (elaborating an earlier treatment by Poisson) devised a method for determining a ship’s soft iron properties from a prescribed set of swings. In 1871 the editor of Good Words once again called on his friend for an article on some technical or scientific subject. with the ship’s bearing. Thomson wrote an obituary notice of him for the Royal Society. however. But that same year brought the death of his old friend Archibald Smith.” On the 1858 Atlantic voyage. This was a fantastically intricate business. decided to write about the nautical compass. which could then be transformed into a mathematical formula to derive tables of compass corrections. Smith was just over 60 years old when he died. Thomson. as was now clear. the Navy settled on a policy of mathematical correction but in a more sophisticated way than before. While working at the law during the day. where he planned “to see ‘the Retribution’ swing. His account. A letter to Stokes as early as 1850 tells of him going to Borley Rectory in Suffolk to visit the Rev. where Smith’s mathematics transformed them into an array of correction tables that were sent to the ship con- . and Thomson. This was official labor. It is not clear when he first took a serious interest in compass correction. undertaken for the Admiralty’s Compass Committee. These numbers went to London. the mass of cable aboard the Niagara had upset the compasses enough that it steamed away from the midocean rendezvous on the wrong bearing and had to change course and follow one of the smaller ships instead. Every year ships’ captains had to perform a complex set of swings to obtain the necessary data. and sometime mathematician. because of the dependence on angle between ship axis and magnetic field. proud new owner of the Lalla Rookh. and varying according to the ship’s bearing. for detg the devn of his compass. The old system of swinging a ship to get a single set of corrections was utterly inadequate. a general history of the compass. and the particular problem that consumed so much of his energy was a complex and detailed analysis of compass deviation. and Thomson blamed his demise in part on exhaustion. W. The soft iron deviation varied. he devoted his evenings to mathematics. W. London lawyer. recorded no recollection of this incident. When Airy’s compensation system proved inadequate. individualized to each ship. an old Cambridge friend. Herringham. Glaswegian. appeared in 1874 and did not offer any great novelty.COMPASS 235 tively an attraction to William Thomson.

which in principle put navigation in the hands of everyday sailors. Mariners often made their compass needles heavier. So I had to learn my subject.” Apart from the difficulties presented by the hard and soft magnetism of iron ships. In a vessel rolling side to side.” he told his readers. Thomson discovered. On the other hand. and still feel insufficiently prepared to enlighten the readers of Good Words upon it when I now resume the attempt to complete my old article. Between sailing his own ship. that was a task for officers. a compass card balanced on a pivot—a so-called dry card—was set in a bowl and mounted in gimbals (a 16th-century innovation) that allowed it to rotate freely on perpendicular horizontal axes. Instead. to Thomson’s eyes. But the heavier the .236 Degrees Kelvin cerned for a navigator to apply to the ship’s compass. and studying Smith’s handiwork. The mathematics. Centuries ago. Thomson found a new challenge to latch on to. the method was beyond impossible. so that the needle twists about its own long axis. even in expert hands. A single needle sitting on the diameter of a card does not work well. but as a system to allow an ordinary sailor to chart a course. His demotic instinct rebelled against the mathematical system in favor of the kind of mechanical compensation that Airy had tried. A compass needle is a magnetized rod. writing for Good Words. elegant. “I found I did not know nearly enough about it. The Admiralty rather preferred it this way. this needle experiences a purely dynamical influence that tries to line it up with the axis of the ship. compass designers had learned to mount the needle on a support or card that floated in a bowl of water—not a practical solution for a ship rocking around in a violent sea. thinking they would be more stable. In 1879 he wrote another article to summarize his progress but admitted the task was enormous. Only a select few could master the art of compass correction. which obviated the danger of untutored seamen going astray or worse through blind trust in a poorly corrected compass. was refined. and powerful. “When I tried to write on the mariner’s compass. the mathematical correction method offered so many chances for error that it was far from foolproof. there was a woeful history of compass design that ignored elementary matters in dynamics. I have been learning it these five years. It wouldn’t do for plain sailors to know how to steer their ships. which tries to align itself with the earth’s magnetic field.

with more complex geometry— harmonic components.3 inches long and two 5. essentially. some distance apart. It was. an attendant bureaucracy. the most important of these higher order effects disappear. because they exert equal but opposite pulls on the different needles. distorted by the body of the ship. under Johnson. A long.4 inches long. To a first approximation. The Admiralty Standard Compass was therefore not merely an instrument but an entire system. In particu- . With multiple needles correctly placed. A compass in an iron ship experiences the earth’s magnetic field. formed the heart of the Admiralty Standard Compass.5 inches in diameter. During the mid-1840s hundreds of the new compasses were ordered and installed. But there are also higher-order disturbances. with detailed rules and regulations and. and many other navies around the world adopted it. as far away as possible from any large iron structures. to oversee everything from manufacture to testing to installation to maintenance. regardless of where the ship is heading. It came with instructions to place it on a ship’s midline. The Compass Committee settled on a design in 1840 that dealt fairly well with these problems. with two needles 7. Considerable thought had been expended on the design of the pivots. and so on. In 1842 the Admiralty set up a Compass Department. this arrangement of needles also had beneficial magnetic properties. the distortion pulls a needle out of true. the gimbals. inevitably. In its day it represented an enormous leap forward in quality and reliability. leaving the compass card as a whole unaffected. the more it responds to dynamical rather than magnetic forces. it would rotate with equal stability about any diameter). and placed in such a way as to the make the card symmetric in its dynamic properties (that is. of the distortion. an uncompensated compass. to one side or the other. On the compass card four needles were mounted parallel. Ships’ masters received detailed education on how to swing their vessels and how to use Smith’s correction tables.” as Thomson put it. the compass bowl in which the card was suspended. This card. heavy needle on a fiercely rolling ship will reliably and stably point toward the bow. The lurch into modernity signified by the Admiralty Standard Compass did not pull the rest of the Royal Navy along in its wake. “By a happy coincidence. of mica-covered paper 7.COMPASS 237 needle. by deliberate choice.

At the British Association meeting in Liverpool later that year. an iron-clad passenger vessel. resisted any hint of change. On its maiden voyage. it ran aground in heavy seas with the loss of 290 out of 538 people. At first. By the early 1850s. as in the older ships. During the 1840s steam and iron drove out wood and sail in the merchant marine. but now the old guard of the Admiralty resisted for sentimental reasons. one day out of Liverpool.238 Degrees Kelvin lar there was resistance to the commissioning of fully iron-built steam ships. Consequently. Captain Johnson had long ago seen these difficulties coming and urged a reconsideration of Airy’s correction methods. Scoresby said. the Rev. William Scoresby. posed no insuperable difficulty. legitimate questions arose about the reliability of steam technology and the soundness of riveted metal hulls. Dr. which were beginning to be found. had no scientific training but by dint of great effort mastered the mathematical correction of Archibald Smit—and having mastered it. smelly metal boats. later churchman and amateur scientist. In any case Airy’s method had failed to prove its worth. although difficulties in dealing with much greater compass errors were by then becoming apparent. the Admiralty Standard Compass became part of entrenched naval practice when iron ships had not yet put in an appearance. In 1854 Airy had compensated the compasses of the Tayleur. But he died in 1853. Deviations of 10 or 20 or more degrees. Some sections of the press chimed in too. declaring that the splendidly rigged wooden ships that had built and now safeguarded the British Empire should not be thrust aside to make way for ugly. so violent motion in a storm could do the same. when the Admiralty could no longer resist steam and iron. Captain Frederick Evans. the Standard Compass system was inviolate. His successor. with the tragedy still fresh in the public mind. charged that Airy’s compensation methods were not to be trusted because a ship’s magnetism could change. Deviations of one or two degrees. but these subsided as commercial shipping interests forced the rapid development of better engines and more robust ships. were another story altogether. so that compass errors were generally small and mathematical correction worked reasonably well. This was a highly dubious conten- . formerly captain of an arctic whaler. Just as banging and hammering during construction imparted permanent magnetism to a ship’s iron components.

though. though it was clear both systems had drawbacks. Worse. even allowing for the rudimentary understanding of magnetism at the time. The BA in response formed the Liverpool Compass Committee. but the bigger the needle. and the officers were blaming the compasses instead of mastering the real enemy—inadequate compensation. Evans oversaw a test of Airy’s compensation methods on a smaller vessel. therefore.” He and Smith produced a series of immense Admiralty manuals on the mathematical correction of compasses.COMPASS 239 tion. and Airy argued against it. Scoresby’s alarms were disturbing. coming across all this in the 1870s. which reported in 1860 with a broad recommendation in favor of compensation rather than mathematical correction. was too forbidding for the average mariner. who became reluctant to offer coverage for new ships. Highly decorated compasses with long needles looked mighty impressive on the gleaming bridges of new ocean liners. though he hesitated at “the placing of so dangerous a tool as a moveable magnet in the hands of the untrained navigator. The interaction among the earth’s magnetic field. Evans conceded that some basic correction by magnets or soft iron had merit. to the point where secondary magnetic interactions between needles and compensators added to the local magnetic distortions. In the meantime iron ships were getting bigger. “between 1850 and 1880 ships were. with a jab at Darwinism. including Captain Evans and many Admiralty figures. and in what Thomson. called “a process of ‘Artificial Selection’ unguided by intelligence” compasses got bigger too. The big compasses tended to be unstable or else unresponsive. Even a simplified version. The loss of the Tayleur and the ensuing controversy at the 1854 BA meeting caused a ruckus among insurers. the hard and soft magnetism of a . which found favor with many navies around the world.” William Thomson. As one naval history put it. But to nonscientific observers. found a problem to relish. the greater the magnetic force needed to keep it aligned. A handful of elementary and unarguable physical principles dictated the dynamics and magnetic behavior of compasses. a bigger needle needs a stronger magnet to correct it. Dynamical problems resurfaced. but despite a good result remained unconvinced and stuck to Archibald Smith and his mathematical tables. sailing about with unsteady compasses and heavy deviation tables.

they rolled more slowly. almost 60 seconds in the prototype. and magnetized needles entailed huge mathematical complexity but no scientific novelty. slender needles on silk threads. on top of the difficulty he had experienced in getting his sounding machine tested. caused Thomson to remark later that “innovation is very distasteful to sailors. Within this ring Thomson then suspended eight short. there was a practical issue to be dealt with. would be more stable in heavy weather. but unlike the official instrument it was intended for the use of ordinary sailors.” This wariness set the tone for subsequent battles. and Thomson perceived the importance of giving the compass card a slower oscillation than the ship itself—otherwise in heavy seas the compass would tend to rock in synchrony with the ship and become magnetically unresponsive. Thomson. intended as a complete system. Thomson’s compass contained little that was truly original. Thomson took out the first of several patents for a compass design of his own. whereas the Admiralty Standard card had a period of perhaps 20 seconds. properly suspended. As ships got larger. one of very few knowledgeable sailors who could actually appreciate the exquisite mathematics of Smith’s correction methods. and the solution should be one that ordinary seamen. than the Admiralty Standard Compass card. Evans’s cool reply. Thomson included a Flinders bar (something the Liverpool Committee had strongly endorsed) because it largely took care of heeling and . Putting all the weight at the edge gave the ring an extraordinarily long period of natural oscillation. In 1876. could grasp and use. As well as using magnetic and soft iron correctors more or less as Airy suggested. but at the same time had greater dynamical stability. At the end of it.240 Degrees Kelvin ship. like the Admiralty Standard. and with guns firing. Thomson turned the compass card into a light aluminum ring. In his 1876 compass. 10 inches across. Its magnetic delicacy made it easier to compensate. not just mathematically trained navigators. His card was lighter and magnetically more sensitive than the Admiralty Standard. As early as 1874 Thomson had written to Evans suggesting that a lighter compass card. It was. after several summers of experimenting on the Lalla Rookh. shunned the mathematical system in his own compass design. I have a semi-official letter to that effect. Like his sounding machine and tide predictor.

” according to one history of navigation. at his expense. so that any sailor with a few hours of training could compensate the compass in a reliable way. with Evans’s backing.” The mandarins of the Admiralty were likewise indifferent. Some naval historians have charged that Thomson gets too much credit for merely putting Airy’s method into practice. Airy was unimpressed. just said. “It won’t do. resisted all thoughts of change or innovation. probably referring originally to the cabin in which a compass was kept. who had sailed with the Agamemnon on Atlantic cabling expeditions. they said. and this was no small achievement. on some suitable occasion yet to be determined and on a ship 6Archaically “bittacle. there was insufficient guidance on the size and strength of magnets and correctors. By the late 1870s Thomson had succeeded only in getting grudging permission from the Admiralty to install one of his compasses. and so on. Thomson “enunciated no new principles but was the first to combine successfully all the requirements in one compass and binnacle. Captain Evans of the Compass Department had complained with some justice that Airy’s prescription was too loose to yield consistent results.COMPASS 241 related errors. after looking at it for a while. One of Thomson’s students took an early. The superintendent of compasses by this time was William Mayes. Their job. from commanders who found that the Admiralty Standard Compass performed poorly in ships moving at speed or when firing guns. Complaints were coming in. Characteristically Thomson designed a complete compass mounting or binnacle6 in which all the correctors could be positioned in a prescribed and restricted fashion. was to implement policy set out in Admiralty documents. a small dwelling. . In Thomson’s compass the correctors were designed along with the card and so had optimal properties and placement to harmonize with both the magnetic and the dynamical attributes of the compass card. how close they should be to the compass. with increasing frequency. but as well as adding the Flinders bar Thomson took pains to devise a system in which compensation would be both straightforward and trustworthy. admittedly rather crudely mounted compass to him at the Royal Observatory but Airy.” from Latin habitaculum. Evans had by now ascended higher but maintained overall control of compass matters. But Mayes.

used occasionally in nontechnical contexts with varying degrees of accuracy and appropriateness. equation by equation. particularly a tendency to become unstable under rough conditions. He made his compass available informally to a number of captains. has emerged into everyday language. and a base of support grew among mid-level naval officers. he began to win allies. platythliptic. Celebrated as they were in Thomson’s lifetime. a strategy that Admiralty men regarded as a low trick and which may have hardened opposition. Thomson refashioned the gimbals and the card suspension. In 1884 Thomson delivered a series of lectures at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Entropy has come part way. Into the 1880s the Thomson compass made inroads in commercial shipping and was gaining a few crucial promoters in the Navy. Thomson was a familiar and cheery figure among naval officers around the country. and by his frequent sailing around Britain on the Lalla Rookh.242 Degrees Kelvin yet to be selected. . but the purpose of the whole intricate exercise would seem opaque. He was becoming wily. Through his long association with cabling. A physicist today reading Thomson’s Baltimore lectures. And some miscarry within science itself. as they became known. like one of those architectural follies wealthy Victorians liked to put up in some bosky corner of the estate to surprise visitors. No modern physics student will recognize these words or could guess what they refer to. diamagnetism. remained steadfast in their determination to hold on to the now 40-year-old Admiralty Standard. however. a word originally born of science. for the purposes of testing. However. cybotatic. Favorable reports on his compass trickled in. and more besides. euthythliptic. Evans and Mayes and their Compass Department. might well be able to follow the author sentence by sentence. Some words never make it out of the scientific lexicon: enthalpy. his work with the Admiralty on other matters. quaternion. The Thomson compass encountered problems. though. Some Admiralty officials regarded this as a variety of cheating. *** Energy. in the course of which he amused his audience with a novel and curious terminology: thlipsinomic. the Baltimore lectures stand as an elaborate monument to a forgotten cause. plagiotatic.

along with a selection of items read from a local newspaper that were not so easy to make out. Thomson heard “marvellously distinct” the words “to be or not to be” spoken through the device. Navy had already adopted the liquid compass. The U. he claimed to have found a previously unknown shoal somewhere in mid-Atlantic. was Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. Ritchie of Boston.S. but Evans brushed off this innovation. S. Thomson also saw a liquid compass by E. Thomson particularly noticed an automatic telegraph receiver and an electric pen presented by the 29-year-old Thomas Edison.S. Most astonishing. where he plumbed a depth of only 68 fathoms at a point where the charts said 1. Returning on the Scythia. Sailing across the Atlantic with Lady Thomson on the S. in which a card and needles floated on water in an enclosed vessel instead of being suspended in air on pivots and gimbals. Ritchie sent one of his devices to the Compass Department in London. He brought back a pair of telephones from Philadelphia to show off at the British Association meeting in Glasgow later that year but had some difficulty with Bell’s primitive microphone and couldn’t get the apparatus to perform.900 fathoms. who did not tread an academic path.COMPASS 243 Thomson first visited the United States in 1876. though. using compacted . teaching himself electricity and some engineering. Thomson likewise showed no great enthusiasm for Ritchie’s compass. He had already designed his first dry-card compass and wasn’t about to be deflected from his purpose by an entirely different design. when he acted as a judge in the technical instrumentation section of the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. so the telegraph industry offered a route into technical careers for those. a decision that was to prove wise in years to come. he had kept the crew and passengers entertained with constant experimenting on his compass and a new version of his sounding machine. (Edison’s “button” microphone of the following year. no doubt. like Edison. Russia. Edison had started as a junior telegraph operator. Just as telegraphy was the first commercial technology to make use of the science of electricity. as it was not only radical but foreign. Among the dazzling array of inventions he saw in Philadelphia. Oceanographers have inexplicably failed to rediscover this shelf. all the more easily. whose remarkable career was just beginning.

in Montreal. “The meeting of the British Association . . more cosmopolitan and confident. and the generous open-mindedness” that he had seen on display in Philadelphia. Thomson was part of a large contingent from Britain. Boston. seemed little short of miraculous. notable among them “Sir William Thomson.” declared the Montreal Gazette of the city’s eminent visitors. a counterpart to the BA founded in 1847. Thomson spoke enthusiastically of “the originality. has been one of the happiest events in our history and one from which much and manifold good may be reasonably expected. and its achievements. made the telephone into a far more practical instrument. . the patient persevering thoroughness of the work. . “To see such men is a privilege. and he and several others went on to Philadelphia to attend a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Science was the driving force of the age.) After Philadelphia the Thomsons went on a whirlwind train tour taking in Niagara Falls. Philadelphia. England’s great mathematician and electrician.” Thence Thomson went on to Baltimore. . was not quite so overawed. the appreciativeness.” The New York Times saw fit to reproduce these glowing remarks.” Daniel Coit Gilman. where in a story on events at Johns Hopkins the Sun announced that “the great event in the year’s work will probably be the lectures by Sir William Thomson . . most recently the telephone. Eight years later the British Association organized its first meeting abroad. At the BA meeting in Glasgow.244 Degrees Kelvin carbon powder whose resistance varied with applied pressure. Toronto. considered by many scientists second only to Newton. but still the Inquirer ran a long account of the many famous men coming to town for the AAAS meeting. He noted sharply that in America “every good thing deserving a patent was patented” and told his audience that the “onerous” British patent system was “far behind America’s wisdom in this respect” and that if the British and European patent laws were not amended “America will speedily become the nursery of useful inventions for the world. In both Montreal and Philadelphia the local newspapers splashed accounts of the visiting luminaries on their front pages. the inventiveness.” The paper devoted dutiful pages reporting to Montrealers the arcane discussions of the visiting savants. and Newport. Montreal.

was by then two decades old but not yet widely understood or accepted. with departments of science. who believed that “the very best and most effective—most stimulating— course would be one on the obscure and difficult points in our modern physics. telling him that this “would give a strong impulse to the study of Physics in this country. He passed on advice from Wolcott Gibbs. after his earlier visit. Maxwell’s one undeniable success.” Gibbs wanted “a really vigorous showing up of our shortcomings. academic science was in a rudimentary state. especially if supported by new views such as Thomson could and would bring forward. .” Thomson settled on the wave theory of light as his theme. in Thomson’s estimation. graduate students. Heinrich Hertz’s laboratory demonstration of radio waves was four years in the future. Maxwell’s theory. and noteworthy professors. or on how these effects passed through a vacuum and interacted with matter. in the atomic and molecular theory of matter. on what light was. Thomson found Maxwell’s theory deficient because it had nothing to say on precisely what constituted electric and magnetic phenomena. As far as Thomson was concerned. according to which light was a form of electromagnetic radiation. Gilman asked Thomson to start with a general talk to a large audience but emphasized that the point of his lecture series would be to introduce a select group to the most advanced topics and pressing questions. Johns Hopkins was at that time probably the nearest to a European research institution. To modern thinking. this alone almost demonstrates the fundamental correctness of Maxwell’s theory. had written to Thomson in 1882 inviting him to deliver a series of lectures on whatever subject he cared to choose. Maxwell proposed certain general concepts—electric and magnetic fields—and showed mathematically how . it was a pregnant quantitative prediction that the current evidence supported but by no means proved beyond doubt. had praised the technical inventiveness of the Americans. was the connection he found between the speed of light and the propagation of purely electric and magnetic phenomena in a vacuum. chemistry professor at Harvard. Every professor of physics in this country would want to hear such a course.” Although Thomson. . . in electricity. For instance on the difficulties we meet in the wave theory of light. In particular.COMPASS 245 president of Hopkins. as regards the want of any physical theory whatever.

He wanted models that would explain and predict the behaviors that Maxwell’s theory merely accommodated and labeled. there were phenomena that Maxwell’s theory failed to ad- . moreover. Finally. the air bunching up and spreading out alternately. but that didn’t explain anything. Others developed magnetism that opposed the applied field. To some extent. These two constants are linked in a simple way. He showed that these interlinked fields could sustain oscillations that traveled at a fixed and finite speed. What. if it is to support wave motion. conductors— by using appropriately adjusted values for the permittivity and permeability. in the same sense as the applied field. Maxwell showed.246 Degrees Kelvin they related to each other. further difficulties and complications arose. He simply labeled the vacuum by certain parameters. Thomson accepted the importance of the speed prediction but in other respects disliked what he saw as the abstract nature of Maxwell’s theory. How do electric and magnetic effects propagate through space. Why? Again. Why was one material a conductor and another an insulator? Some materials responded to a magnetic field by becoming magnetic themselves. every physicist knew. to the predicted speed of electromagnetic radiation. Thomson wanted to know. But this merely glossed over the fundamental questions. When one thought of light and electromagnetism and their behavior in matter. according to the best available data. and proposed relationships among these things. Maxwell could model various materials—insulators. were pressure waves. characterized electromagnetic fields by certain mathematical functions. It was a start. Thomson believed. Thomson agreed. The speed thus calculated was suggestively close to the speed of light. was the corresponding picture for electromagnetic waves? On these issues Maxwell was silent. and what physical mechanism determines the permittivity and permeability? Surely what we call empty space must be a medium of some kind. Thomson wanted to know what went on in inside a material when an electromagnetic influence pervaded it. Maxwell’s theory allowed these phenomena to be given mathematical labels. but it was not yet physics as he understood the term. What constitutes this medium and how does a wave motion manifest itself? Sound waves in air. Defining the strength of electric and magnetic forces according to their respective inverse square laws are two constants known respectively as the permittivity and permeability of the vacuum.

rather than absorbing evenly across the whole spectrum? Maxwell had no answer. gray hair. He had his topics in his head but prepared little for each session.” Thomson had turned 60 a few months earlier but was still a slender. appearing at certain fixed wavelengths of light. Rayleigh thought. the limp from his shortened leg exaggerating the impression of constant activity. The English physicist Lord Rayleigh (who was born into the upper crust as John William Strutt and acquired his title when his father died) attended about half of the Baltimore lectures and remarked to his son years later: “What an extraordinary performance that was! I often recognized that the morning’s lecture was founded on questions that had cropped up when we were talking at breakfast. lively man. Newton long ago had shown that pure white light could be split by a prism into an orderly rainbow of colors. Thomson couldn’t accept a theory of light with nothing to say on so elementary an issue. engaging his audience of about 20 in discussions that led to consultation of books and papers. The course of one day’s discussion fed into the next day’s agenda. He intended his lecture series as an extended collegial seminar. He protested vehemently that Bunsen and Kirchhoff had unfairly taken credit for spectroscopy from his friend Balfour Stewart. G. In 1814 the German astronomer Joseph von Fraunhofer found that hundreds of dark lines crossed the spectrum of light from the sun. He speaks easily. Tait to embark on a crusade. indicated the presence of individual chemical elements. more than a set of carefully prepared talks would 7This afforded another opportunity for P. and in the mid-1800s Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff showed how these characteristic lines. Thus was born the science of spectroscopic analysis. A reporter for the Baltimore Sun dropped by to see the celebrated scientist in action and wrote that “the lecturer is a man tall. He began his series of lectures on October 1. but has a habit of constantly twitching his hands while addressing an audience. and broad high forehead. though somewhat stooping.COMPASS 247 dress at all. with kindly eyes. augmented by hasty overnight calculations.7 But what was the physical mechanism by which some substance snipped out a handful of little sections of incoming light. .” This spontaneous disorderliness pleased Thomson’s audience.

like Russian dolls.” J. which became known as the “wiggler. so Thomson proposed two flywheels inside the sphere. generally both charm and interest in these diversions. he appears to talk at great and often mystifying length about waves in fluids and solids with various presumed characteristics. a sort of thinking out loud in an enthusiastic incoherent manner. It was only very rarely that he prepared either a speech or a lecture. he said. in one way or another. although the “lectures were quite in the usual Thomsonian style. Rayleigh gave a somewhat less sanguine view. with some slats going one way and some the other. with bigger weights on the higher slats. and even more enigmatically of the oscillations of imaginary mechanical constructions that he asked his listeners to ponder. and perhaps with one in the middle remaining stationary. By varying the frequency of oscillation Thomson showed a great variety of motions of the wiggler. or more specifically the way molecules interacted with light. In the printed version of his lectures (they were stenographed and reproduced). At the ends of the slats weights were placed.” Ostensibly.” On a steel wire suspended from the ceiling half a dozen short wooden slats were attached. There were geometric arrays of rigid rods. inside which lay concealed. remarked of William Thomson that “he has been known to lecture for an hour before reaching the subject of the lecture. Baltimore had been a success. smaller spheres linked to the adjacent ones with springs (and zigzag springs. J. Thomson talked in Baltimore of the wave theory of light.” he recalled. “They were very much impressed and he got some of them to do grinding long sums for him in the intervals. Thomson (no relation). There was a flywheel on an axle inside a sphere. mind. at different frequencies. There were apparently featureless spheres. joined in such a way that they could rotate and pivot in a restricted fashion. not the usual spiral sort). The whole array could be oscillated by a pendulum attached at the bottom. There was. to the few who were already interested in the subject he was talking about.248 Degrees Kelvin have done. These bizarre toys. but that wasn’t complicated enough. Spectroscopy made it clear that matter responded not . Writing at the time to his mother. were supposed to represent molecules of matter. For one example Thomson devised an actual model. on a split axle that could pivot about its midpoint. discoverer of the electron. though. like the rungs of a ladder.

He mentioned Burgundy pitch and Trinidad pitch and Canada balsam as having properties interestingly different from . This arrangement sat there. and then scattered a few bullets on top. both absorbing and emitting at these preferred points of the spectrum. was something like a wax—hard on short timescales. so that light behaved as it was empirically known to behave. the ether must also be forgiving and tenuous. A familiar medium. Thomson asked his audience to imagine that a molecule must be some sort of machine with a complex array of internal vibrations and oscillations. will ring at high pitch. with no hindrance. when struck. Of course no real wax truly mimicked the required physics of the ether. doing nothing at all as far as the eye could tell. This was relevant in understanding light. On the other hand. whereas a more pliable block of wood would give a dull thud. He told his audience of a favorite demonstration. The point was that such things were possible. broadly speaking. soft with respect to slow changes. thrown in some corks (which naturally floated). Thomson also discussed at length the propagation of light through the unknown medium—the ether—that sustained electromagnetic oscillations. could seem solid by the hour. Therefore the ether. as an initial basis for contemplation. having floated slowly upward. while the bullets had sunk through and dropped to the bottom of the jar. and therefore conceivable. but fluid by the month or year. After a year. In his Glasgow laboratory he had almost filled a glass jar with water. to sustain the extremely rapid vibrations of light waves. to be precise). But after six months. The problem was to get the right physical characteristics for the ether.COMPASS 249 just to light in a general sense but to particular frequencies of light. as Thomson fondly explained. Light could set the thing going (in which case a particular frequency would be absorbed. poured in a two-inch layer of wax (Scottish shoemaker’s wax. as light energy went into the molecule) and once it was vibrating the toy molecule could emit light again—perhaps at the same frequency but in general (as in the wiggler) at some other frequency that had been also set going. for the simple reason that slowmoving solid objects (such as the earth) apparently passed freely through it. because the ether. the corks and the bullets had vanished from sight. the corks had emerged on top of the wax. must in some sense be rigid—just as a chunk of hard metal. he concluded.

To account for the full range of strains produced in a maximally nonisotropic solid. in all combinations. and the like—came up as Thomson cataloged the entire range of physically allowable behavior of three-dimensional solids with density. no going back. or the interaction of light with matter. a substance that isn’t isotropic responds to an applied stress with a distortion at some angle to the applied force. to discover what kinds of behavior they present and how the phenomena might relate to the passage of light. however. according to the geometrical relationship of . There is shear. It is Thomson’s scientific style at its acme. There was no hesitation. Thomson admitted. as when a rope of dough is twisted to make a spiral. 21 independent coefficients are needed. He talked of glycerin. rods and springs. passive weights and gyrostats. Pastry dough. is what physicists call an isotropic material. platythliptic. it was a matter of coming up with the appropriate characteristics which. Thomson’s thermodynamics and engineering colleague William Rankine (who had died in 1872 at the age of 52) had been a man of classical learning and had devised a set of 21 names for these coefficients. and viscosity. as when the cook. all uncontroversial and with well-understood properties. then add something: More springs! Another flywheel! Another set of hinged. he had not yet been able to do. Combine them. The ether was like a wax or a jelly. frictionless rods! Thomson displayed no doubt that the strategy was correct.250 Degrees Kelvin his shoemaker’s wax. pushes dough across the board to create an elliptical disk. such as mica or graphite. he insisted. as when a pastry cook squeezes a lump of dough into a ball. If the modeled phenomena do not have the required range and complexity to simulate their empirical counterparts. but buckle or crack under a force applied perpendicularly. which may slide easily when pressure is applied in one direction. compressibility. There is simple compression. And there is torsion. Its properties do not have any directionality. plagiotatic. Thomson occupies more than 200 pages with seemingly endless calculations of the vibrations and oscillations of increasingly rococo arrangements of waxes and jellies. The curious vocabulary—thlipsinomic. with the heel of the hand. By contrast there are layered materials. Take a handful of ingredients. or rotation. In the printed version of his 20 Baltimore lectures. In general. His response to any difficulty was to add more bells and whistles.

Perhaps he over did it. Unless. Thomson explained in one of his numerous Baltimore digressions. He imagined. had a particular obsession with the way English had acquired an erroneous pronunciation of Latin and Greek words by absorbing them through French and campaigned quixotically for reform. but I do not like to call it an error. or not enough.” In Rankine’s system one had to say Kikero instead of Cicero. . described but not achieved in his Baltimore lectures. in other words. became “sidelong normal” and “sidelong tangential. As long as I cannot make a mechanical model all the way through. Thomson’s aim. . . in Maxwell. the concepts they stand for have left no mark on modern physics. in one famous discussion. he could reproduce the mathematics of any physical phenomenon in terms of some directly appreciable mechanical model. had used mechanical models similarly in order to arrive at the eventual form of his theory.COMPASS 251 stress and strain they each denoted. He “was the last writer to speak of cinematics instead of kinematics. Maxwell. that would support oscillatory light waves with precisely their observed properties and relation to electric and magnetic stresses. But there was no physics.” Thomson said. and in the end he preferred a more conventional language. characterized by the correct set of values of the 21 coefficients. Rankine was splendid in his vigour. .” for example. I can get a model in plain dynamics. did not literally think that space was filled with some version of Scottish shoemaker’s wax or Canada balsam or that matter was really composed of tiny spheres concealing springs and gyrostats. “Cyboid is a very good word. which Thomson admitted was too much. but I do not know that there is any need of introducing it instead of Cubic. and the grandeur of his Greek derivatives. I cannot in electromagnetics. He summarized his central objection: “I never satisfy myself until I can make a mechanical model of a thing. of course. That is why I take plain dynamics. If I can make a mechanical model. I cannot understand. . and that is why I cannot get the electromagnetic theory. I can understand it.” Whatever antique charm these words may once have possessed.” Thomson. Rankine. Maxwell’s theory. early on. he did not believe he had explained anything. did just that. however. was to find an ether. magnetic effects propagating through space analogously to the way rotation would . . “Platytatic” and “platythliptic. as Thomson saw it.

of “writing out the Lord’s Prayer. having passed an entrance examination that consisted. presented his “Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field” in 1865 “stripped of the scaffolding by aid of which it had first been erected. born in 1841 in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). but in the end those constructs stand or fall by their internal mathematical consistency and their empirical usefulness. and jumping over a chair.” By the age of 18 he had command of his own ship. John Arbuthnot Fisher. became a midshipman in the Royal Navy at the age of 13. It is the ultimate expression of a “mechanical” view of the universe. Fisher was a blunt. For such technical inventions his strategy was sound. as one historian put it. naked. On this subject he was the last holdout. and he learned to rely on mathematical laws alone.252 Degrees Kelvin pass among spheres rolling against idler wheels interposed between them. One man in particular become a crucial and outspoken booster. on which he oversaw a technical advance. and ships’ masters began to carry them surreptitiously. Pictures and analogies of all and any kind are frequently useful in drawing up ideas for new theoretical constructs. against official policy.” Maxwell’s is the modern strategy. *** Thomson adjusted and modified his compass and other nautical instruments with just as much ingenuity and resourcefulness as he fiddled with ether models. after which he was given a glass of sherry as evidence of his having become a naval officer. During the 1880s word of Thomson’s compass spread around the Royal Navy. his biographer reported. in the presence of the doctor. outspoken man whose career teetered constantly . the firing of guns by electric impulses coming from crude batteries of zinc and copper plates immersed in vinegar. The obviousness of this position was self-evident to Thomson. But as he explored further Maxwell found that adhering to strict mechanical pictures limited his ability to understand the links between electric and magnetic phenomena. Thomson’s insistence that every theory must be reducible to a suitable arrangement of simple Newtonian ingredients limits the imagination far too much. In the end he abandoned mechanical pictures and. even if they represented physical entities that had no immediately perceptible mechanical counterpart. and for no good reason. who neither would nor could provide deeper justification.

he complained. and impatient with the past. Two years later Fisher. allegedly acquired from the Chinese. . Thomson spent hours on deck adjusting his compass.” he fumed.COMPASS 253 on the edge of insubordination but was carried off with sufficient brilliance that he ended up.” Given command of the Northampton. indefatigable. and barely tolerated by the Admiralty. were reliably opposed by “some Commander Knowall . His con- 8The English inventor Swan came up with his lightbulb at about the same time Edison devised his. In cold weather and wearing a thin overcoat. while young officers sent to assist him came and went shivering. became captain of the Inflexible. .” He then explained to Fisher his theory. He succeeded by force of personality as much as pedagogic skill. if feared. but Edison’s superior commercial sense and his mastery of electric systems won the day. the largest ship in the Royal Navy. still only 40. Invited by Thomson to dine one evening at the Royal Society. was robust. They became great friends and allies. and then some old ‘cup of tea’ writes to the Times . drilling young seamen in the mastery of another new technology. as First Lord of the Admiralty. these carbonised cranks who wield the pen. Thomson. In his memoirs he raged against mindless official resistance to any kind of change. thank you. actuated by the wrong kind of grey matter of their brain. Fisher first encountered Thomson and his compass in 1879. “We still have ancient Admirals who believe in bows and arrows. He was a reformer and an enthusiast for scientific innovation. One student. he saw Joseph Swan’s new incandescent light8 and immediately decided he needed them for his ship. respected warily by his fellow officers. the torpedo. Fisher told him at some point to come in from the cold. He was the kind of officer loved. . . Admiral Retrograde . asked to explain why π was equal to 3. “Didn’t the Board of Admiralty issue a solemn Board Minute that wood floated and iron sank? So what a damnable thing to build iron ships!” The merest hints of change. supposedly wrote that it was “the most suitable number Captain Fisher could think of. by his men. years later. but Thomson assured him: “No. always interested in new ideas. that many thin layers were better than a few thick ones. I’ve got several vests on.14159. .” For a few years he taught gunnery school in Portsmouth. I am quite warm. . like Fisher. .

I takes the bearing of the cask at every point of the . we’re constantly looking at the sun when it sets. and his immediate second diagnosis was ‘Dangerous. or whatever the nautical expression may be. who happened to be on board. I throws a cask overboard. a man was electrocuted not long after in a similar accident. “what do you do about your compass? Are you sure it’s correct? In the Navy. Thomson’s utter lack of embarrassment at changing his opinion so immediately impressed rather than irked Fisher as the sign of man. so he said. capable of adapting unhesitatingly to circumstances. very dangerous to life. “Well.” the old captain explained. The captain of this old vessel had been plying about the Mediterranean his whole life and told Fisher.” The electric lighting on the Inflexible ran at first on a 600-volt system.254 Degrees Kelvin stant requests for modifications and improvements (he stirred up trouble by insisting on more toilets) caused him. and when it’s as far off as ever I can see it. “He diagnosed the matter as ‘a nasty little leak. and that’s an easy way of seeing that the compass is right. but not likely to be dangerous to life’. They were both pragmatists. Fisher asked Thomson. from which he could figure how far they’d sailed. “Just then the cable slipped through his hand and the bare wire touched his finger.” Fisher asked. He leapt into the air. The potential was cut to 60 volts. to be “regarded by the Admiral Superintendent of the Dockyard as the Incarnation of Revolution. I will mention this to the British Association. that he generally got about successfully by knowing his “lamp-posts”—the lighthouses—and by having his engineer tell him how many turns the engine had made. its lack of practicality. and on one occasion a sailor got a bad shock from touching a poorly insulated wire. but inveighed against its complexity. As a young man Fisher had found his way to a new ship in the eastern Mediterranean by hitching a ride. to take a look. I turns the ship round on her axis.’” In fact. “what I does is this. you know.” Fisher recalled. like himself.” “Well. on a tramp steamer heading out from Italy. Fisher understood very well the intricate system of swinging a ship and obtaining correction tables. and especially against the dim-witted bureaucracy that had caused it to survive long past its useful lifetime. who was curious about the man’s informal navigational practices.

Even Captain W. But. so far as Fisher saw it. whether they had [Thomson’s] compass on board. But what most scandalised the dear old Fossil who then presided over the Admiralty compass department was that I wanted to do away with the points of the compass and mark it into the three hundred and sixty degrees of the circle (you might as well have asked them to do away with salt beef and rum!) . which gives me the average. who he said was swindled out of his painstakingly acquired means).” In his way. and that’s what the compass is wrong on each point. Fisher was a socialist.COMPASS 255 compass. Both men were Navy through and through and knew no other life. It was only ridicule that got rid of the old Admiralty compass. . had gone to sea as a midshipman at the age of 13 and worked his way to the top. but he was flexible and adventurous. I always asked at a Court-Martial. “I seldom does it. E. the ‘Old Salts’ said at that time. like Fisher. “We fight God when our Social System dooms the brilliant clever child of the poor man to the same level as his father. “It was an immense difficulty getting the Admiralty to adopt [Thomson’s] compass. I was reprimanded for having them on board.” Fisher was no doubt opinionated too. Once in the Compass Branch he had his orders and he meant to stick to them. . . as King Edward VII told him many years later. described Evans as “pig-headed and self-opinionated. was a microcosm of aristocratic elitism and conservatism. May.” he concluded. who. . He loathed the British class system and the privileges accorded to the genteel members of society.” he wrote (he had been brought up by his maternal grandfather. Having become a champion for Thomson’s compass. . The compass correction system. and then I subtracts each point of the compass from it. because provided I make the lamp-post all right I think the compass is all right. divides by the total number of bearings. Fisher took no small pleasure in battling the Compass Department at every opportunity. a historian generally sympathetic to the Compass Department and somewhat hostile to Thomson. no matter what the prisoner was being tried for. ‘There he is again—the d—d Revolutionary!’” The “dear old Fossil” in question was either William Mayes or his superior and mentor Captain Evans. his commitment was to a . Evans’s devotion manifested itself in an unremitting determination to adhere to tradition and obey official regulations to the smallest of the small print.

and Thomson’s reputation and sometimes hectoring manner in court overcame the opposition. One day in 1885 he had been talking at the Admiralty with a captain who complained that his Thomson compass had been so poorly located. in one case by appeal to the House of Lords after a lower court had gone against him. Thomson was told of his slip-up and .” In the meantime Thomson used the patent courts to fight off various competitors. the justices of Great Britain had no expertise in deciding technical questions. Mayes was plotting against the good cause. After he had come down from the stand. approving the use of the compass though only in a subsidiary relation to the Admiralty Standard. that he could hardly use it. He particularly defended his compass card—aluminum ring. according to Fisher.” Fisher later told Thomson. Still. with some justice. light but with long period—as his chief innovation. Not only Fisher but other captains began to rely on the Thomson compass and press for its official adoption. Some years later Thomson appeared as an expert witness in a patent case involving electric wiring systems. that these ideas had been floating about for some time before Thomson put them all in one card. and Fisher roundly declared to his colleague: “I can state from long experience that Capt Mayes may be relied upon to use every exertion to place Sir Wm Thomson’s Compass in the worst possible position. A clever barrister with some technical knowledge seized on a small error Thomson made in his testimony to push the case for his side. with a couple of exceptions.256 Degrees Kelvin mythical naval history of heroic deeds and courageous individuals saving the day over the pedantic objections of desk-captains in thrall to their rulebooks.” “The result of this speech. He initiated a number of legal challenges against competing designs and won all of them. with a determination that was often more thorough than admirable. His own compass. was the result of his putting together a variety of ingredients from numerous sources. but other compass builders with slightly different layouts could claim. Thomson had financial resources and friends in high places. with respect to the iron structure of his ship. By chance Mayes appeared just at that moment. In 1883 the Admiralty relented a little. small needles suspended on threads. “was most gratifying—I am convinced that the proper way to treat Capt Mayes is to deliberately and calmly insult him.

At the time of the decision.S. back in the 1860s. both the old Admiralty Standard and the Thomson compass proved unstable and useless. and Thomson went on. a man both scientifically knowledgeable and forward looking. had been kept on long past its natural lifetime.. while a simple liquid compass remained level. Captain Ettrick W. the Board decided. however. prodded relentlessly by Fisher and others. their Lordships were not inclined even to consider another technology. The Royal Navy had recently commissioned a number of fast torpedo boats. 1889. the barristers objected to the judge: “‘My Lord. or in rough conditions. or with weaponry firing. But that did not make him eager to take on the Thomson compass. Navy. on November 19.COMPASS 257 somehow blustered his way back on to the stand where he began to deliver an impromptu technical lecture. now coming up to its 50th birthday. and when he returned to Glasgow at the end of the month he told his sister Eliza- . under conditions of constant pressure. the Thomson compass. The U. to make the Thomson compass the sole official compass of the Royal Navy. As J. For Thomson this was the final victory and vindication. Creak argued for the adoption of a range of compasses. and having belatedly and inelegantly come around. had decided to go with liquid compasses of the kind that Ritchie exhibited in 1876 in Philadelphia. He did not doubt that the old Admiralty Standard Compass. J. The ponderous mass of the Admiralty Board. and liquid compasses for torpedo boats and for gunnery positions on other ships. Although Creak mustered evidence in favor of the superiority of the liquid compass in some circumstances. Thomson recounted the anecdote.” At the end of 1887 the Admiralty appointed a new superintendent of compasses.R. including an improved Admiralty Standard. The trick had been to design a chamber in which a compass card could float stably on water. when they moved at high speed.S. Thomson was staying in London with Fisher. and with this and other improvements accomplished the liquid compass had far fewer of the dynamical problems associated with a dry card balanced on a pivot. had by this time finally turned from its old course enough to embrace the Thomson compass. and in these. what has this to do with the case?’ ‘I don’t know! I don’t know!’ said the judge. Creak F.

then an assistant at the Compass Department.258 Degrees Kelvin beth that “much mean and underhand work has been brought to light. though. E.” Fanning concluded. which described difficulties with the Thomson compass as well as the virtues of the liquid compass. “I may single out amongst the many practical results of your researches the benefits you have conferred on Navigation. . suppressed by Evans and Mayes. . was excellent for many applications.” It was not until after Creak had retired that his successor was able finally to introduce liquid compasses into the Royal Navy.” In his history of the Compass Department. “His compass . the fundamental design remained the same. and that Admiral Fisher has been instrumental in exposing the abuse. When the board met to make its final decision. but for the requirements of the Navy of the 1890s its introduction was a retrograde step. more than 13 years since Thomson had first taken out a compass patent. Creak (being an honest man. In 1883 Creak. A. Uncle William does not want it talked of. It was. The 51 letters existed but were old. however. Fanning tells a different story. . A few of these letters contained critical remarks but fully 51 (so Elizabeth King wrote to her daughters) “spoke in terms of unbounded admiration and appreciation. . after all. after he had retired. Creak confided to a friend: “When the Thomson compass was first introduced as Standard Compass on board I felt it my duty to try and make it a success. had written to Thomson congratulating him on the award of the Copley Medal by the Royal Society. and your steady advocacy of that instrument against adverse forces has made me—perhaps one among many—long since review the position I had taken up and thank you for having made me think the matter over again increasingly to the advantage of your conclusions. . Foremost amongst Navigational instruments comes your compass. in many respects the bete noire of my existence. Thomson having more or less retired from . It was. . You can review the position of your compass as regards the Navy with pride and satisfaction. . and it was Fisher’s irresistible force that had brought them into the open. however. and although he had made many modifications since then. I believe this has been going on for years. .” Some 60 letters from ships’ captains concerning the Thomson compass had allegedly been squirreled away at the Compass Department.” Years later. Fanning says) dug out these old testimonials and presented them along with 24 more recent reports.

who managed to parlay a handful of modest ideas in compass design into a commercial monopoly for his own manufacturing concern. could still be found on merchant vessels and other ships well into the middle of the 20th century. inevitably. Thomson’s compass.COMPASS 259 the scene by this time. Writers sympathetic to the Navy. though. The truth. portray Thomson as a man of undoubted talent and enthusiasm. Scientific biographers of Thomson. seems to lie somewhere between these extremes. with some genuine knowledge of the sea. have generally taken the matter to be a sorry saga of dim-witted naval administrators resisting marvelous innovations from a superlative scientific mind. and persuading the Admiralty and the law to overlook both the deficiencies of his own design and the virtues of his competitors’. on the other hand. . using his reputation as a bludgeon in the law courts to beat down even small claims of originality from others. if they have paid any attention at all to his compass innovations.

D. Scholars from around the country mingled with prominent Glaswegian businessmen and politicians. spilling out onto the spacious lawns where they were serenaded by the pipers of the Gordon Highlanders. as did institutions from across Europe and North America. The astronomer Simon Newcomb was there. June 15. and Glasgow remained sunny and pleasantly warm well into the evening hours. representing the National Academy of Sciences in Washington.6 KELVIN onday. Anglo-American. came from Cambridge. Almost every college and university in Great Britain sent one or more representatives. Upwards of 2. Upstairs. sent his apologies. courtesy of the Eastern. a week shy of the longest day of the year. Stokes. commercial and scientific instruments. The Prince of Wales. Flowers and electric lighting (still something of a novelty) brightened the lecture rooms and hallways of the university buildings.C. detained elsewhere by a prior engagement. 1896.000 distinguished visitors roamed the campus. In the library the visitors could marvel at an array of electric and mechanical devices. telegraph equip- M 260 . all the product of one man’s inventive powers. and Commercial Cable companies. From Princeton University came Professor Woodrow Wilson. now Sir George Gabriel Stokes.

more soberly. San Francisco. New York. The 1896 Glasgow celebration marked another milestone. in Queen Victoria’s New Year’s Honours list of 1892. New Orleans. He was the first British scientist to be raised to the peerage. Congratulatory messages ticked in from around the world. it connects the academic world with the open sea. when Maxwell was appointed. His commercial success and personal wealth exemplified Victorian entrepreneurial virtue and contributed to Britain’s economic and technological prowess. Accepting the peerage. Thomson had to choose a title for himself. Lord Tom-Noddie would suit him. Washington. sent from within the university. The only position that might have drawn him away was the Cavendish chair at Cambridge. but his ascent into the upper reaches of nobility did not spring from his purely scientific achievements. William Thomson. Lately he had made political forays on behalf of the Liberal Unionist party.KELVIN 261 ment and siphon recorders stood ready. arriving at the library. and Newfoundland. One. and his reputation guaranteed that his voice was heard. again when Maxwell died in 1879. later Sir William. Sir William Thomson had become Lord Kelvin (to be precise. he vehemently opposed home rule for Ireland on the grounds (which his father would heartily have endorsed) that it would inevitably lead to religious quarrels and sectarian politics. Kelvin is the name of the small river that runs beside the university into the Clyde. which he had in the end refused three times: at the outset. now Lord Kelvin. His telegraphic and marine navigation systems served in support of the empire. Baron Kelvin of Largs) four and a half years earlier. Thomson joked. and the chair eventually went to Lord Rayleigh. took seven minutes to travel via Newfoundland. His sister Elizabeth. New York. and once more when Rayleigh . Florida. in his simple way. had been a Glasgow professor for 50 years since taking up his post at the age of 22. came up with “Kelvin” a couple of days later. only to find that Fanny and William Thomson had already had the same thought. Los Angeles. He composed a short reply of thanks and sent it back around the same route. It looped around the western hemisphere in only four minutes. A Scot of Irish origins. He was not politically sophisticated. but he was plain spoken and direct. where it was presented to Lord Kelvin. Chicago. Lord Cable! Lord Compass! his nieces suggested.

J. . in order to set up his own laboratory and work in peace. invariably known as J. would be a life’s work again. alas—The wrench would be too great. . Joseph John Thomson. much more. At his jubilee Kelvin was lauded over three days with banquets and speeches testifying to his “pre-eminent service in promoting arts. day-labourers in science”—for their congratulations and for the work they had all done over the years. J. to whom William Thomson’s old friend and colleague James Joule was a distinguished but by then frail and impoverished man.” J. J. To make a new departure . in the same vein.” his contributions to “the improvement of natural knowledge. He remained there for 35 years and built the Cavendish into the world’s preeminent institution for experiments in the new physics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. . . had written: “I am afraid it cannot be—alas. J. supported by a government pension after he had lost money through failed investments. and valuable scientific inventions. in the advance of scientific theory and experiment. Thomson. .” Late in 1884. In reply. and have been becoming more and more fixedly moored ever since. echoing Newton’s fa- .” his “splendid discoveries . ..262 Degrees Kelvin resigned after five years to return to his estate at Terling. J.’s father had said: “Some day you will be proud to be able to say you have met that gentleman. . conferred signal benefits on the whole civilized world. . Approached then about leaving Glasgow for Cambridge. became Cavendish professor. Thomson’s appointment marked the end of one kind of physics and the beginning of another. manufactures. But then. . His colleagues and students pioneered the investigation of radioactivity and atomic and nuclear physics. . . This lay in the future. He discovered the electron in 1897. second wrangler in 1880. thanking the city and university for their long loyalty to him. I began taking root here in 1831 [when his father came to Glasgow with his young family].” his “triumphs . thanking his numerous colleagues—“friends and comrades. which have . was a 28-year-old physicist from Manchester.” The Cavendish professorship went to a much younger man. and science. Kelvin began conventionally enough. then 60 years old and just returned from giving the Baltimore lectures. “to my great surprise and I think to that of everyone else. Introducing his young son to Joule one day. But William Thomson’s final refusal of the Cavendish chair and J. in Essex.” and more.

formed the core of classical physics. Thomson’s identification of the electron. By 1896 thermodynamics was largely settled.” Then they all sang “Auld Lang Syne. and everybody said he never spoke better. I know no more of electric and magnetic force. granddaughter of his sister Elizabeth. This was more than adequate compensation. or of chemical affinity. or of the relation between ether. Physics. Some of the people tried to laugh incredulously. than I knew and tried to teach to my students . and a wish that he had done more to deserve it all. As people rose in turn to offer their own words of praise. From 1895 to 1897. fifty years ago. the years bracketing Kelvin’s jubilee. he told his audience. far from being wrapped up. for the “philosophical failures” he spoke of. the first of those new discoveries had put in an appearance: X rays. still . One word characterizes the most strenuous of the efforts for the advancement of science that I have made perseveringly during fifty-five years. and J. . that word is failure. but he was too much in earnest for that. with Newtonian mechanics. a body of knowledge that held center stage for just a decade or two before the unexpected discoveries of the 20th century began to push it to the background.” *** What Kelvin called failure is.KELVIN 263 mous phrase about the small boy playing on the seashore. electricity. in the standard histories of science.” Kelvin moved swiftly on. he went on: “When I think how infinitely little is all that I have done I cannot feel pride. wrote that the word failure “seemed to ring through the hall with half-sad.” his great-niece reported. and of all my friends in crediting me for so much. These. Kelvin “seemed nearly to break down for a moment. and Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism had gained experimental support and widespread acceptance. I only see the great kindness of my scientific comrades. “There was something pathetic about it all—a sort of wonder that people should be so kind to him. . but got through. of the innumerable inventions and marvelous devices that scientific study had brought into being in the second half of the 19th century.” It was a startling moment in an emotional evening. to talk of the joy of experimental discovery. J. and ponderable matter. radioactivity. A great-niece of Kelvin’s. a progression of remarkable triumphs. half-yearning emphasis.

too mathematical. a tangible physical medium that would carry electromagnetic influences. and too isolated from the rest of science. physicists would have called this a time to take satisfaction in what had so recently been achieved. profound mathematical theories encompassed all these phenomena. combined novelties gleaned from other sources. and in similar isolation from the mainstream. Kelvin also. neither heat nor energy. As long ago as January 1867. which he recently had the pleasure of witnessing in Professor Tait’s lecture-room” and to a theoretical analysis of fluid motion from his old friend Helmholtz. In his Baltimore lectures a dozen years earlier he had promoted his endlessly intricate attempts to construct mechanical models of the ether. astronomers. were understood except in a rudimentary way. He had still not reconciled himself to the elegant but spartan electromagnetic field theory of Maxwell.264 Degrees Kelvin had the capacity to surprise and perplex. In 1846. But in the closing years of the century mathematical formalism was driving out. and refuse to accept so un-English. a title he disliked. . for one thing. In 1896. only a few months after the successful conclusion of the Atlantic cable venture. electricians. Natural philosophy had not gone as Kelvin had hoped. as always. and mathematicians may surely claim to be admitted along with merely descriptive investigators of nature to the honourable and convenient title of Naturalist. During an 1862 lecture he had quoted Johnson’s definition—“Naturalist. nor light nor electricity or magnetism. Yet Kelvin talked of failure. chemists. Even so. It turned into physics. Of mathematics itself. when William Thomson took up his Glasgow position. unpleasing. Fifty years on. cultivated his own view of atoms and molecules. a subject he believed was becoming too abstract. physical realism.’” Certainly he would rather be a student of natural philosophy than of physics. he had been a mathematical prodigy. Kelvin still pursued this increasingly lonely quest. and meaningless a variation from old usage as ‘physicist. as Kelvin saw it. A person well versed in Natural Philosophy”—and had said that “armed with this authority. the newly minted Sir William Thomson had presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh a long account of what he called “vortex atoms. Kelvin had no fear.” His ideas. In particular he referred to the “magnificent display of smoke-rings.

as indeed in a number of ways it was. but the modern theory. arising in the middle of the 19th century.” Thomson said. He filled the box with smoke from a piece of smoldering phosphorus.KELVIN 265 Tait had taken a wooden packing box. This was simple in principle but enormously complicated in practice. In this case. Why was one material transparent and another opaque? Kinetic theory did not address such matters. The idea that matter consisted of small. An atom must clearly be more than an inert lump. Maxwell. Thomson did not altogether object to kinetic theory. Its defenders would argue that they were using an idealized model to tackle a specific issue—the derivation of the large-scale thermodynamics of gases from the microscopic dynamics of atoms. If a model didn’t explain everything he wanted to explain. But Thomson never liked to deal with idealizations and limitations. some array of intrinsic properties. and by striking the cloth sharply with the flat of his hand. but wonderfully suggestive. This put him in mind of “the clash of atoms” implied by the new kinetic theory of gases. then bounced away intact. If a gas consisted of tiny atoms speeding about and colliding constantly with each other. as kinetic theory held. and Ludwig Boltzmann in Vienna. in which the motion and collision of atomic entities were presumed to account for the overall properties of a gas. owed most to the efforts of Clausius. These rings. hard atoms had ancient roots. as dictated by simple Newtonian mechanics. since there were trillions upon trillions of atoms in an ordinary volume of gas. This was the foundation of spectroscopy. but he found it inadequate and restrictive. and replaced the opposite end with a taut cloth. not uniformly across the spectrum. he would add to it somehow. what he needed was a model in which atoms had some sort of structure. were “pungent and disagreeable. Kinetic theory was then beginning its long and eventually triumphal ascent. by . cut a circular hole in one end. he could produce smoke rings up to a foot across and an inch in thickness. Perhaps the greatest triumph of kinetic theory was Boltzmann’s derivation of a statistical formulation of entropy from the collective motions of atoms. sailing gracefully across the room. like rubber rings. then the overall properties of the gas ought to follow directly from consideration of the behavior of the atoms. with no qualities except mass and velocity. He watched as two rings grazed up against each other: They met. Atoms absorbed and emitted light at characteristic frequencies. quivered.

Thomson seized on this mathematical theorem and built on it a tentative atomic theory. “Its solution will be the foundation of the proposed new kinetic theory of gases.” Thomson wrote. stirred with a spoon and then left alone. Tait’s experiments with smoke rings arose from his translation of an 1858 paper by Helmholtz that discussed rotatory motion in fluids. Working . This is mainly because of friction between tea and cup.” Beyond that. Helmholtz had defined. “Helmholtz’s rings are the only true atoms. the collective rotational motions of an idealized frictionless fluid might behave in a hugely complicated way.) In particular Helmholtz had shown that a “vortex ring”—a toroidal or doughnut-shaped volume of spinning fluid—was stable.” Thomson confidently declared. the fluid stirring about this way or that. Like the atoms of kinetic theory. was the foundation of what we might now call a grand unified theory of light and matter. will of course come to a standstill after a time. Finally. pictured as a ring with some set of possible oscillations determined by its structure. The vortex atom looked like a good bet. (A cup of tea. Vortex rings could not appear out of nowhere. Here in principle. the vibrations and oscillations of vortex rings. which he showed was conserved. Thomson asserted. if a vortex ring was a stable rotatory motion of the light-transmitting ether itself. nor could they vanish.266 Degrees Kelvin which he could try to understand the interaction of atoms with light and other electromagnetic phenomena. which Thomson had amused himself with in Tait’s laboratory by poking at a smoke ring with his finger. Each atom. a quantity he called the Wirbelbewegung. would interact with light at a characteristic set of frequencies. although in a far more complicated fashion. had the capacity to explain spectroscopy. Permanent existence was a basic criterion for any structure that might qualify as an atom. That is. they would interact with each other in ways determined purely by dynamics. but vortex rings had much more going for them than that. for a fluid with some arbitrary set of internal motions. or vortex motion. then the physical attributes of the ether should completely determine the interaction of a vortex atom with light. The collision of two rings was a difficult though “perfectly solvable mathematical problem. but their total magnitude measured by Helmholtz’s prescription would remain constant.

would act precisely as incandescent sodium-vapour acts—that is to say. before the mills and factories of the burgeoning academic industry had processed scholarly and scientific prose into the passive-voiced porridge it has mainly become . applied to a certain medium. may very probably consist of two approximately equal vortex rings passing through one another like two links of a chain. The striking spectroscopic properties of sodium—the bright double line that gives sodium lights their lurid yellow hue—had caught Thomson’s interest years ago. and he was quick to suggest that “the sodium atom . and consequently all their properties followed from dynamical laws alone. Vortex atoms were purely dynamical constructions. with proper volumes and angular velocities in the two rings of each atom. This would be a theory of everything.KELVIN 267 out a full theory would not be easy: “Even for a simple Helmholtz ring. formulated by Maxwell in what Thomson regarded as a suspiciously abstract style. There was nothing else to explain. . but certainly far from insuperable in the present state of mathematical science. Thermodynamics was already a branch of mechanics. Underlying it all was simple Newtonian mechanics. speaking at the British Association meeting in 1870. *** Even by the standards of the 19th century. Now light and electromagnetism and the properties of atoms would all likewise reduce to dynamical theorems and proofs. It is .” This sort of exercise.” In the space of two sentences Thomson’s enthusiasm for vortex atoms took him from “very probably” to “quite certain” without a second thought. for its day. . . The laws of electricity and magnetism. would fulfil the ‘spectrum test’ for sodium. Light was a dynamical phenomenon. intoxicating vision without reservation.” Thomson latched onto this marvelous. would turn out to be the dynamics of the ether. Maxwell himself. suited Thomson perfectly. like his Baltimore models of the ether. quite certain that a vapour consisting of such atoms. the analytical difficulties which it presents are of a very formidable character. Matter was a dynamical phenomenon. endorsed Thomson’s proposal as a project worthy of serious investigation and said that if it succeeded the constitution of the physical world would be “nothing but matter and motion. .

W. Born in 1850 in the London slums (around the corner. I had already had one of my inventions tried in a rough experimental way by the [Post Office] with success. with the result that he was kicked out some years later. . remember the wooden-headed. yet other people do not like it. I do not know what else they can do. . Beginning in the mid-1870s. it took an odd author indeed to begin a work of mathematical physics thus: The following story is true. and pretend to be solemn and woodenheaded.O. and. Thomson and asked him to propose me. he began a lengthy project to formulate a comprehensive theory of signal transmission by the electric telegraph 1Thomas Carlyle. Heaviside escaped his origins by becoming a telegraph engineer—the same route Edison took with such great success. if young. but he made no pretence of being wooden headed. So his father beat him with a strap.” And he tried and tried. Don’t frown. . “I was riled. take warning by his sad life and death. And do not frown. For most wooden-headed people worship money. was certainly different from other people. he attended no meetings and never paid his dues. and his father said. . really. So be rigorous. from the blacking factory where the young Charles Dickens spent a harshly formative period). He was a real gentleman and agreed at once. if you are different. Oliver Heaviside. . but was informed that mere telegraph clerks did not qualify.” when asked about the population of England. So I went to Prof. replied “thirty millions. and then he was eaten up by lions. if Carlyle’s dictum about the 30 millions1 still be true. He applied for membership in the new Society of Telegraph Engineers. a Scot. Its author.268 Degrees Kelvin today. if you are going to write a book. in spite of the P. In particular. but could not. that will cover a multitude of sins. “Do try to be like other people. . For though it may be an honour to be different from other people. But Heaviside was at heart a mathematician and a theorist. The paper then discussed some propositions concerning wave motion in electromagnetic theory. snobs. you had better hide it. Reader. mostly fools. There was a little boy. “What would Edison say if he were here now?” Heaviside later remarked. So I got in.” Having proved his point by obtaining membership. . and he singularly lacked the personal skills by which men get on in business. he would say. So.

20 years earlier. and I cannot doubt but that in electro-magnetic practice we shall derive great benefit from a pursuing of the theoretical ideas suggested by such considerations. Heaviside’s way of looking at the submarine cable problem is just one instance of how the highest mathematical power of working and of judging as to physical applications. In his address as inaugural president of the IEE. In fact. whether overland or undersea. and connection were tried out and patented.KELVIN 269 according to the full Maxwellian theory of electromagnetism. It was no longer enough to get indeterminate but recognizable blips down a cable. Heaviside’s treatment was mathematically sophisticated. Systems for wiring. helps on the doctrine. Thomson himself devised and then marketed through his instrument company one of the first electricity meters. He believed Heaviside’s investigation of the telegraph would illuminate Maxwell’s theory and remedy what he regarded as its flaws. The appearance of the telephone at this same time made new demands of electrical theory. with only a limited understanding of electric phenomena at his disposal. and directs it into a practical channel. industrial and domestic electricity were on the rise. and led to new principles for the design of long telegraph cables. the Society of Telegraph Engineers transformed itself in 1888 into the Institution of Electrical Engineers. As well the telephone. As the scope of electrical technology blossomed. but practical too. Heaviside’s invariable response to opposition was sarcasm of a creative and eccentric flavor. Thomson saw this achievement exactly backward. which won him no allies. But his praise came on the back of a hesitant and grudging nod toward Maxwell: “Maxwell’s ‘electro-magnetic theory of light’ marks a stage of enormous importance in electro-magnetic doctrine. Heaviside’s theoretical analysis supplied a sound basis to the new technology. Telephony over any distance demanded an output that faithfully reproduced the input. insulation.” Heaviside had used Maxwell’s theory to help him understand the telegraph better. but his ideas were at first firmly resisted by the British Post Office. Thomson made special mention of Heaviside’s new treatment of telegraphy. By this time Heaviside had abandoned with disgust his connection to the unappreciative telegraph industry and had gone to live with his . This was the subject Thomson had begun.

a process that resembled entry into the baseball hall of fame. and so he became F. another young physicist making a name for his work in electromagnetism. strapped me. What we now regard as .R. to rig the balloting in 1890 and guarantee Heaviside a place. Heaviside was now working hard in his isolation. no one would have worn a T-shirt bearing his equations. I would prefer never to be nominated. and not just because Victorian gentlemen didn’t wear T-shirts. with or without his full compliance. proposal. Lodge. others did not. Thomson. He had a brother living nearby but hardly ever visited “because he thought the cart-men shouted abuse at him. he was living with his parents (nursing them. Still I was not happy!)” Such was Heaviside’s strange. until they got in or got the message. T. so he has suggested postponement. until about the 1970s. (I had a wicked mammy. As he has probably told you. As he explained to Thomson. some succeeded. flogged me. The Nobel laureate Leon Lederman has joked that the essential criterion for an acceptable “theory of everything” in modern physics is that the necessary equations should fit on a T-shirt. a more than brutal pappy.S. going from a specific treatment of telegraphy to a more general and theoretical reworking of Maxwell’s electromagnetism. pugnacious humor. the nearest thing to a theory of everything that physicists had thus far devised. his attitude was awkward: “I have to give you my best thanks for your consideration in offering to second Oliver Lodge’s F. An arrangement was made. Science and engineering students may occasionally be seen wearing T-shirts with Maxwell’s equations on them. whacked me. a secret ballot was taken. however. apparently.” To Lodge he wrote enigmatically: “You may judge of the intensity of my feelings as to possible rejection by the fact that I have so good a man as you for my proposer and no less than Sir W. these being.S. and seconded by Thomson. and still I am not happy.” Around this time he was put up for membership in the Royal Society. barely surviving on their meager resources. Crankiness apart. and others worked behind the scenes. In Maxwell’s own time. Heaviside was proposed by Oliver Lodge. they kicked me. so he claimed) when he wrote this. I am somewhat cranky on the subject. rather than be passed over..R.270 Degrees Kelvin parents in Devon. and those who failed could campaign again the next year. Names were proposed and seconded. He never traveled up from Devon to go to meetings in London. for seconder.

encapsulating the links between electricity and magnetism—are due to Oliver Heaviside. This is not to say that Heaviside deserves credit for the conception of electromagnetic theory. Using this compact and elegant notation.KELVIN 271 Maxwell’s equations in their standard form—four concise laws. but their meaning becomes more transparent. in other words a vector quantity that varies from place to place. Pages of repetitious equations turn into single condensed statements. and the electric field is a vector— because it has orientation. in the 1880s. Maxwell expressed his theory in Cartesian coordinates. Heaviside was able to provide a more rigorous statement of the mathematical properties of the electromagnetic field than Maxwell had been able to do. and this in turn led to a more is a curiosity of nature that electric charges exist but that their magnetic counterparts do not. A scalar is simply a magnitude. and z components of the electric and magnetic fields and writing down complicated differential equations. y. it is a vector field. The three basic operations of vector calculus are grad (for gradient). but he made innovative use of it in electromagnetism. and curl (for twist or rotation). 2It . Maxwell’s equations have a certain asymmetry between the electric and magnetic parts for this reason. div (for divergence). individual “monopoles” never occur. Moreover. Not only do the equations become simpler. to capture the variation of these three components with respect to each of the three coordinates. Magnets always come in conjoined north and south poles. cryptic to the uninitiated. electric charge is a scalar. Using the standard mathematics available to him. such as a velocity. Maxwell’s theory connects the amplitude and geometrical pattern of electric and magnetic fields to the spatial distribution of electric charge2 and also to the time variation of the fields. Some theories of elementary particles predict that there should be monopoles. Heaviside did not invent this kind of mathematics. was a pioneer of what is now called vector calculus. Why this should be remains mysterious. which roughly indicate the geometrical property of a vector or scalar field that the operations elucidate. At any rate. Heaviside. So too the magnetic field. occupying many pages. A vector is a quantity with magnitude and direction. In electromagnetism. separately denoting the x.

he said. and curl.” To no avail. It is not altogether easy to see why. and eases the memory. could discern physical meaning in arrays of equations laboriously written out component by component. Heaviside wrote to him once that the new style “save[s] letters. “is not just to save space. Heaviside (and independently J.272 Degrees Kelvin precise statement of the physical significance of certain aspects of the theory. were the leaders of this informal movement. Their use of a compact mathematical notation ought to have pleased him. but also illuminated and enlarged Maxwell’s theory by using the new methods to apply it in much more general ways and to trace in detail the physics of electromagnetism when regarded as a form of energy. H. if no one else. in the 1880s and 1890s. in general investigations. The Maxwellians put great emphasis on the primacy of energy. of a young group of mathematical physicists who became known as the Maxwellians. But with vector notation instead of the old mess of Cartesian components. it is to simplify ideas and language. as he could have taken it as part of his lifelong battle against “aphasia. and I am sure Faraday never thought of components. it was the Maxwellians who not only produced Maxwell’s equations as they are taught (and printed on T-shirts) today. It had been generally assumed that when electricity moved about. Yet he did not like grad. In Baltimore Thomson had declared that Faraday “did . To all this Thomson remained cool. Heaviside and Lodge. all the energy was carried by electric currents. along with the Irishman George Francis FitzGerald. It became apparent that electromagnetic energy. pervaded space and was not concentrated only in charges and currents. div.” But the point. an important matter when there are a great many vectors. These and other insights were the work. Perhaps he. components never come in them.” the unaccountable inability of otherwise intelligent people to understand mathematical arguments. Poynting) proved that the electromagnetic field carried energy. In essence. This certainly was Thomson’s view. a philosophy Thomson had long endorsed. and harmonise our symbolization with Faraday’s way of viewing things. it became possible to find a mathematical definition of energy that could be followed with relative ease through complex algebraic manipulations. like the fields. and preferred to stick with the cumbersome Cartesian notation of old. Notably.

But Heaviside was no Tyndall.” At one point the dispute boiled over into the pages of Nature. The corresponding quaternion. it seems to be very significant. with Tait attacking the growing number of adherents to the vectorial doctrine. There is confusion in the quaternionic citadel. . Heaviside remarked in one paper that “if we put aside practical application to Physics. nor words to express their ideas. but not an intangible vector field stretching and flexing unseen through space. but the physical pictures had to be of a certain kind. being unable to bring his massive intellect to understand my vectors . He favored mathematical theories based on physical pictures.KELVIN 273 the most” to cure the “mathematical disease of aphasia from which we suffered so long. The old mathematicians used neither diagrams to help people understand their work. . . A quaternion was a particular combination of a vector and scalar. . The quaternionic calm and peace have been disturbed. . thoroughly right. then Prof. Along the way Thomson fell behind. Wheels and springs and pulleys he could countenance. a combination of the two. He went in for outright mockery. This appealed to Tait’s sense of mathematical tidiness. Tait. and Quaternions furnishes a uniquely simple and natural way of treating quaternions. Above all. constructed so that quaternion operations always produced other quaternions. Perhaps too Thomson was influenced in part by his long-running battle against the quaternionic notation his friend Tait so heartily espoused. Faraday was a great reformer in that respect with his language of ‘lines of force. responding with the measured distaste and veiled disdain of a Victorian gentleman. Tait himself objected with typical vehemence to the new vector notation because he regarded it as a watered-down version of his cherished quaternions. and formulas alone. has delegated to Prof. It was formulas. and hurling of stones and pouring of boiling water upon the invading host. delivered with transparent glee: “Passing to Prof. does not. . . The vector electric field and the scalar electric charge have distinct and separate physical identities. alarms and excursions. but it went against nature. Tait’s letter.’” Maxwell had carried through Faraday’s project to completion. and look upon Quaternions entirely from the quaternionic point of view. Tait is right. It would appear that Prof. the notion that these abstract entities purported to carry energy distressed him. . and Heaviside transformed it into a more accessible language. .

.274 Degrees Kelvin Knott the task of examining them. P. Heaviside and the other Maxwellians believed equally strongly in the existence of an ether—that is. he meant something he could construct out of wheels and pulleys and springs and gyrostats. Thompson’s Life of Kelvin: “Found out why he did not like ‘curl. He hankered still after mechanical models of the ether. Without the model he did not consider electromagnetics to be dynamical. and could not accept any ether unless he could make a model of it. FitzGerald had criticized Thomson’s ideas as early as 1884. (though I did throw a bomb occasionally. that the electric and magnetic fields that their new treatment of Maxwell revealed so clearly were. to stimulate an official humbug to say something about electricity and how to apply it). He thought they embraced a kind of mathematical formalism that distanced itself further from true physics the more formal it became.” Thomson disliked both quaternions and vectors. 1976). with reference to shoemaker’s wax and various kinds of pitch as analogs to the 3Heaviside also remarked. That was a great mistake. not reducible to jellies and pulleys. apparently just upon the remote chance that there might possibly be something in them that was not utterly despicable. many years later.” and this opinion extended to the philosophy of the Maxwellians in general. They believed. on reading S. The Baltimore lectures had been reported in summary fashion in Nature.’ He broke his leg when curling! Who can wonder?” (Gossick. mainly for the same reason: To him they obscured rather than illuminated physics. But they were sui generis. commented: “Lord Kelvin used to call me a nihilist. He was most intensely mechanical. These were the mechanical ingredients he permitted in his theorizing. He referred to “Heaviside’s nihilism. in themselves. dynamical entities with genuine physical significance. however. But I regard electrodynamics as being fully dynamical. a medium in which electromagnetic waves traveled. Heaviside. When he said he wanted a mechanical model of the ether. all embedded in some suitable jelly or wax. as he had in Baltimore.”3 This was the essence of Kelvin’s difficulty over Maxwell.

.” The last phrase refers to Newton’s insistence that light consisted of particles. At the 1888 British Association meeting in Bath. He considered Maxwell’s fundamental assumption ‘not wholly tenable. Kelvin admitted late in his life that “a certain amount of opposition was good for him. I also think that Sir Wm. Thomson’s views on Maxwell merited occasional mention in the newspapers. Rather remarkably.KELVIN 275 sort of ether Thomson imagined. this was sharp criticism of his renowned elder. . According to Rayleigh. in fact. FitzGerald found this highly unsatisfactory. Coming from a man just 33 years old. . an opinion that had its merits at the time but retarded the later acceptance of wave theory in England. . the correspondent from the Times reported with extreme circumspection that “Sir William Thomson in one paper cautiously made what must be regarded as a somewhat noteworthy admission with reference to ClerkMaxwell’s fundamental theory. May be Maxwell’s conceptions as to its structure are not very definite.” He and FitzGerald embarked on a substantial though frankly useless correspondence. . but neither are any body’s as to the actual structure of a jelly. He objected strongly to “Sir Wm. is lending his overwhelming authority to a view of the ether which is not justified by our present knowledge and which may lead to the same unfortunate results in delaying the progress of science as arose from Sir Isaac Newton’s equally guarded advocacy of the corpuscular theory of optics. Thomson. It is in some respects analogous to one. Thomson could never accept certain aspects of Maxwell’s theory. but no reconciliation came. . . in the way that momentous meaning was teased out of official pronouncements from the Kremlin in the last days of the Soviet Union. FitzGerald tried to persuade him that these parts of the theory corresponded to real physical phenomena.’ In all his previous utterances on the subject. but we certainly know a great deal too little about it to say that it is like one. Thomson’s speaking of the ether as like a jelly. simply because he could find no familiar physical analog to them. But Thomson never took personal offense in scientific debate. . indeed he embraced a blunt exchange of views. . It seems very unlikely that any jelly is at all like the ether that Maxwell supposes. not waves. Sir William has described Maxwell’s views on this point as com- . notwithstanding his guarded statements on the subject.

. . ‘The luminiferous ether we must imagine to be a substance which so far as luminiferous vibrations are concerned moves as if it were an elastic solid. If light propagated through an ether that filled space. In 1887. FitzGerald wrote: “You say . FitzGerald. and if the earth is also moving through that ether. to find a difference between the speed of two light beams running at right angles. so that the change in his position is of great importance to all interested in electro-magnetic theory. We need do nothing of the kind. But this was the full extent of FitzGerald’s influence. Responding to a letter from Kelvin. that light moved at precisely the same speed near the earth. should not light beams have slightly different velocities depending on their direction relative to the motion of the earth? From the theoretical standpoint. . made a .276 Degrees Kelvin pletely untenable. and that in turn meant further complication for his models of the ether. would the ether (because of friction) move with the earth in the vicinity of the planet but revert to a cosmically stationary state at great distances? Whatever the answer. other issues presented themselves.” Thomson wrote to the paper to explain that he had slightly softened his wording after talking to FitzGerald. Michelson and Morley showed. . regardless of its direction. along with the Dutch physicist Hendrik Lorentz. and failed. I cannot see how you are justified in concluding that ‘we must’ deal with the ether as if it were an elastic jelly. in fact. . The electromagnetic properties of the ether are a much better key to its properties than light waves. at the Case Research Institute (now Case Western Reserve University) in Cleveland. How could the earth pass through a solid ether? Or. there would be consequences for the way light traveled near the earth’s surface. nor apparently can you. Albert Michelson and Edward Morley performed the celebrated experiment in which they tried. Kelvin took this to mean that the earth dragged the ether along with it (his old friend Stokes had made a similar proposal decades ago). This addressed an old and unresolved issue. among others.’ Now this ‘we must’ is entirely unjustifiable. In 1896 he was still making the same point he had tried to make after Baltimore.” The ether had by this time come under experimental as well as theoretical attack. Ohio. and I cannot see. how it can be both electric and magnetic and at the same time an elastic solid. to a high degree of precision.

coming as they did at a time when geologists had given the matter no thought at all: “It is not a pleasant experience to discover that a fortune which one has unconcernedly believed to be ample has somehow taken to itself wings and disappeared. Not until 1905 did Albert Einstein propose his special theory of relativity. light. grumbling and uncomfortable. Einstein made no mention of an ether.KELVIN 277 more radical suggestion: Perhaps the physical dimensions of moving objects shrank slightly when they moved relative to the ether. He began by reminiscing about the early influence of arguments from physics restricting the lifetime of the earth. There was no genuine FitzGerald-Lorentz contraction of moving objects. who assured him that he had enormously overdrawn his account with past time. who thus returned to him dishonoured the large drafts he had made on eternity. When the geologist was suddenly awakened by the energetic warning of the physicist. so to speak.” The geologists. in Einstein’s proposal. In that case. but he died in 1901. and so came to an end half a century of strenuous and increasingly baroque efforts to construct mechanical models of the ether. had nevertheless ac- . a Scottish geologist and friend of Kelvin. so the apparent velocity of light would remain unchanged. there was the assumption in either case that the ether existed and that some complex interaction between ether. FitzGerald was closer to the truth than Kelvin. and matter would explain the result of the Michelson-Morley experiment. an absolute effect—it depended on who was doing the measuring and was a consequence of the “relativity” of measurement for observers moving at different velocities. the presidential address was delivered by Archibald Geikie. Still. *** At the British Association meeting of 1892 in Edinburgh. which said that light always moved at the same speed and that moving objects apparently got shorter. at the same age as Maxwell had died and apparently of a similar cause. it was but natural under the circumstances that he should think the accountant to be mistaken. This was not. none of which ever proved satisfactory. In his theory the ether simply vanished. light would move a little more slowly when it had to go upwind. but any measuring stick would shrink by the same amount.

278 Degrees Kelvin cepted the limitations imposed by physics. “After careful reflection on the subject. the man who refined these arguments enough . while Tait’s assertion that the age could hardly exceed 10 million years was strident but lonely. to grant us some twenty millions of years. ten. particularly in their ability to reason quantitatively about the formation and erosion of terrestrial rocks. and with a salutary effect on their reasoning. as he remorselessly strikes slice after slice from his allowance of geological time. If physicists’ numbers rested on a handful of assumptions. They now had their own calculations about age. it seems to me. which indicated its rotation at the time it solidified. which they were willing to put up against the numbers coming from the physicists’ camp. But the physicists. I affirm that the geological record furnishes a mass of evidence which no arguments drawn from other departments of Nature can explain away. has been made. “Some assumption.” A wary impasse reigned. coupled with measurements of the departure of the planet’s shape from a perfect sphere. however. in truth. This line of analysis had always been rife with physical uncertainties and mathematical difficulties. Geikie went so far as to suggest that the physicists might not know as much as they thought they knew. which will eventually be seen to vitiate the conclusions. I believe.” Geologists were becoming more confident of their science.” he told his audience. One of the weaker arguments limiting the earth’s age came from consideration of the effect of tides in slowing the planet’s rotation. had still not been satisfied. or five?’ demands the inexorable physicist. when his bodyguard of one hundred knights was cut down. Lord Kelvin is willing. none of which seemed to have the fundamental certitude that physical law offered. cannot be satisfactorily interpreted save with an allowance of time much beyond the narrow limits which recent physical speculation would concede. ‘What need you fiveand-twenty. “The geologist found himself in the plight of Lear. was more inclined to allow 100 million years as a reasonable maximum. but Professor Tait would have us content with less than ten millions. or some consideration has been left out of sight. it seems to me. however. But that certitude began to show cracks. By odd coincidence. Geikie complained. and which. Kelvin. geological arguments seemed full of guesses and speculations about weathering and erosion and sedimentation and deposition.

” and he disparaged displays of elegant mathematics “which are in fact mere conjuring tricks with symbols. he wrote a paper. In 1877. The paper was sent to Thomson for review. he was a man after William Thomson’s heart. “On the Influence of Geological Changes in the Earth’s Axis of Rotation. having seen some earlier work by Thomson. “never hesitated to embark on the most complicated computations if he saw a chance of attaining his end. to which he added the further complication of regarding the planet’s interior as a stiff semiliquid rather than an absolutely rigid solid. but then surprised himself and delighted his father by becoming second wrangler in 1868. . etc. the fifth child of Charles and Emma Darwin and the third to grow to adulthood. as was his habit when he saw something that struck him as possessing insight and originality. said a colleague. “My dear old George. he struggled to get into Trinity College. Darwin. As a fellow at Trinity he subsequently dabbled for a while in various mathematical ventures. The problems he tackled would today be programmed into a computer.” In short.” he wrote. “All of us are delighted. . for considering what a man Sir William Thomson is.” . and that he should speak of your ‘discovery. Thus George Darwin encountered the difficult problem of analyzing tidal effects on the earth’s rotation. Darwin was not an original mathematician or an especially imaginative physicist.” in which he addressed the “wandering” of the poles due to slow viscous stirring of the earth’s interior. made contact with the author directly to discuss not only the work at hand but possible ramifications of it.KELVIN 279 to extract reliable results was George Howard Darwin. but he was a prodigious calculator. The success of some approximate methods and the failure of others often indicates which physical effects are important and which negligible. Charles Darwin was overjoyed that his son made such an impression on a matter that had so agitated him over the years. Often in poor health. Cambridge. including a sophisticated attempt to statistically analyze ill health among the offspring of marriages between first cousins. it is most grand that you should have staggered him so quickly.’ . but solving them “by hand” had some advantages. and he had moreover the patience or perhaps monomania to mount an almost lifelong investigation of a problem Thomson could never quite find the time to properly address. Thomson. Hurrah for the bowels of the earth and their viscosity and for the moon and for the Heavenly bodies and for my son George.

And so on. in order to maintain overall conservation of angular momentum. and using the best empirical knowledge he could find of the properties of rocks making up the earth’s mantle. as external forces and internal conditions vary. In papers published in 1879 he estimated that tidal friction operated on a timescale of perhaps 700 million years. In any case. Darwin proved (what seems not at all surprising today) that the body of the planet is amenable to small. . this simply meant that the tidal argument was of no use in Thomson’s battle with the geologists and biologists. He showed how variations in the rotation and figure of the earth could diagnose inaccessible physical parameters such as the viscosity of the planet’s interior. Darwin could at best only establish limits. . The coupling of the earth-moon system with the sun’s gravity induces changes in the tilt of the earth’s axis. which recedes as the earth spins slower. There is no credible way to determine the planet’s age from its present rotation period and current measures of tidal friction. it can adapt its shape slowly as its rotation slows. This alone meant that tidal arguments had no ability to limit the earth’s lifetime to the kind of number that Thomson had long talked about. Because the earth is not perfectly rigid.” he concluded. Darwin freely admitted that there were too many uncertainties in the properties of the earth’s interior to be sure even of the estimates he gave. “Under these circumstances. This led to models in which the moon broke off originally as a fragment of the spinning earth. As far as Thomson’s particular interest went. . His work laid the foundations for understanding many aspects of tidal friction (including both ocean tides and the much smaller but still significant tidally induced flexure of the crust and mantle). the main conclusion of Darwin’s lifelong work was a negative one. I cannot think that any estimate having any pretension to accuracy can be made as to the present rate of tidal friction. Heat loss from the earth continued to provide a stricter limit and a smaller allowable age. . slow changes in shape. Darwin also analyzed the orbit of the moon. Of course. But the fact that one of the restrictions Thomson had long insisted on had now been lifted from their shoulders. and so led to another estimate of the age of the system from the time the moon would take to achieve its present orbit. and by Charles Darwin’s son.280 Degrees Kelvin Through lengthy and laborious calculation.

“I was Lord Kelvin’s pupil. and there have been times when he must have found this difficult. Tait simply declared. had assumed the earth to be uniform throughout in its thermal properties—the same conductivity and heat capacity everywhere. biologists. By solving this more complex mathematical problem. Why then drag in mathematics at all.” Unwisely. The starting point (a uniformly molten sphere) and endpoint (a solid earth with measured surface temperature gradient of 1°F per 50 feet of depth) were the same. but as to the interior there was only guesswork or assumption. were known from direct measurement. in order to obtain an answer. and am still his affectionate pupil. He wrote dismissively of his “entire failure to catch the object of your paper. in which he had assistance from Oliver Heaviside. . Perry then approached Tait. with excessive melodrama. . went back to the original calculation of heat loss and claimed to have found just such a loophole. The thermal attributes of the crust. Ten billion years was surely enough for any geologist or biologist. who responded with barely coherent scorn. Perry sent a draft of his paper to Kelvin but got no immediate response and was reluctant to pursue his criticism. One thing has not yet happened. Perry showed that with a not excessively outrageous choice of thermal properties for the interior. He imagined the earth as a crust surrounding an interior and allowed the two components to have different properties. As he explained. he observed. Perry offered a simple modification.KELVIN 281 gave geologists. I have not yet received the thirty pieces of silver. but because the interior distribution and flow of heat were significantly different in the two-component model. the time from start to finish could be much longer. He has been uniformly kind to me. Perry claimed that an age as much as a few hundred times the original estimate of 100 million years was possible. ?” Tait told Perry that it was “absolutely obvious” that changing the thermal properties of the interior would alter the result: “I don’t suppose Lord Kelvin would care to be troubled with a demonstration of that. and their sympathizers reason to think the other restrictions might turn out to have concealed flaws.” As to what the interior properties of the earth might be. For I seem to gather that you don’t object to Lord Kelvin’s mathematics. Thomson. . In 1895 John Perry. a physicist and former student of Kelvin. . “I don’t . . he could obtain strikingly different conclusions about the age of the earth.

ought to supply some counterargument. if they disagreed. but I doubt that letters like this would be printed nowadays. and yet I have been so accustomed to look up to you and Lord Kelvin.282 Degrees Kelvin suppose anyone will ever be in a position to judge. He admitted “it is quite possible I should have put the superior limit a good deal higher. Perry had pointed out a difficulty. . “do you fancy that any of the advanced geologists would thank you for 10 billion years instead of 100 million? Their least demand is for one trillion. He adduced some relevant bits of laboratory data to argue otherwise. Perry reiterated that his point was not to establish definitively a greater age for the earth. Perry’s argument was “clearly right” but neither new nor surprising to him.” he told Tait. when he finally weighed in.” No solid conclusion emerged.’”4 Tait responded by asking Perry again why he thought the interior was different from the crust and. . which still today remains somewhat racy by the standard of scientific publishing.000 instead of 400. He observed. slyly or more likely obliviously. is all Geikie wants. Kelvin questioned whether the difference between crust and interior could be as great as Perry suggested. unless the interior of the earth was wildly strange 4This is part of the exchange published in Nature. only to show that a greater age was distinctly possible and that Tait and Kelvin. with startling irrelevance.” Kelvin. It could be bigger than 100 million years. perhaps 4. but neither he nor Kelvin (and certainly not Tait) was able to come up with any sound estimate of what the heat loss argument now said about the age of the earth. “is that I cannot see one bit that you have reason on your side. was by contrast eminently reasonable. that I think I must be more or less of an idiot to doubt when you and he were so ‘cocksure. His original analysis of 1862 referred explicitly to the possibility of a difference in conductivity between crust and interior. and this was one of the reasons he had allowed a range of 20 million to 400 million years for the earth’s age. that “100 millions . More pertinently. but not nearly as big as Perry imagined.” this being the figure the geologists had reluctantly accepted because it was as much as Kelvin would give them. “What troubles me. . added.” as if that settled the matter.

The following year. The tidal argument had proved empty. Darwin concluded. geologists and biologists took heart from the confusion.”) Wise words.” At the same meeting George Darwin began his lecture to the physicists by saying “amongst the many transcendent services rendered to science by Sir William Thomson.KELVIN 283 and different from its crust. he may be right. & only wish to speak against such dogmatism as I find in Tait’s writings & not in yours. . .” and concluded roundly that “Natural Selection will never be stifled in the Procrustean bed of insufficient geological time. The obligation is all on the other side. Darwin had said the same thing to Thomson 10 years earlier: “I do not wish to combat the fundamental proposition at all. but Kelvin did not like to heed them. At the 1896 British Association meeting. . The shackles were loosening.” but then he went on to enumerate the mounting difficulties. Another of the supposedly restrictive calculations that Kelvin had so long promulgated had turned out be much shakier than he had let on. it is not the least that he has turned the searching light of the theory of energy on to the science of geology. Still. he fulfilled a longstanding promise to Stokes by delivering a lecture. “Professor Tait cuts the limit down to 10. Poulton of Oxford explained to his fellow biologists the uncertainties that had recently been demonstrated in the physicists’ calculations. B. there were so many uncertainties “that we should do wrong to summarily reject any theories which appear to demand longer periods of time than those which now appear allowable. It appears to me that we know far too little as yet to be sure that we may not have overlooked some important point.000 years. and rests with those who have pressed their conclusions hard and carried them far.” to the Victoria Institute in London. but the uncertainties of the case are far too great to justify us in accepting such a narrowing of the conclusion. He . . .000.” (Privately. in his last formal pronouncement on the subject.” All in all. “The Age of the Earth as an Abode Fitted for Life. E. He told them Tait’s oft-repeated views were “entirely indefensible. It should be borne in mind that many views have been utterly condemned when later knowledge has only shown us that we were in them only seeing the truth from another side. .

He sent a copy of his lecture to Archibald Geikie. Even so. “But why does no one else work in the same field? Has the multiplication of symbols put a stop to the development of ideas?” Equally. who really no longer existed. No real progress had been made in understanding the heat of the sun. Maxwell saw the virtues of the coming methods for dealing with electromagnetism.284 Degrees Kelvin repeated his by now tired old disparagement of the geological uniformitarians. He admitted the tidal argument was probably not helpful but restated his figure of 100 million years for the age of both the sun and the earth. What it was no one then knew. Kelvin mentioned none of this and repeated his offer of 100 million years.” Geikie did not know how to get around the physics. presumably. “The geological & biological arguments for a longer period than you would allow seem to me so strong that I do not see how they are to be reconciled with the physical demands. in a review for Nature of Thomson’s collected papers on electromagnetism. and he wrote approvingly of them in 1872.” But he was no longer willing simply to cave in to Kelvin’s strictures. who sent thanks for this “latest blast of the anti-geological trumpet. but as the century drew to an end. no more. There was no music in those spheres. he had some concern it was a difficult road that might lead nowhere.” He praised Thomson as well as Helmholtz for developing the theory of vortex atoms. He particularly noted that the billiard-ball atoms of simple kinetic theory could not explain spectroscopy: “It would puzzle one of the old-fashioned little round hard molecules to execute vibrations at all. Maxwell had written to Tait in 1867 endorsing what he called “worbles” (a play on the German Wirbel. but he was sure there must be a way. At the 1870 British Association meeting he spoke favorably of helpful mathematical innovations that “can . But clearly there were things in the world of physics that went beyond the limits of established knowledge. not some obscure Scotticism). however. *** Meanwhile the early promise of the vortex atom began to fade in the light of both mathematical and physical problems. radioactivity had entered the world’s laboratories as a mysterious physical phenomenon awaiting experimental scrutiny and theoretical explanation.

In 1882 the subject of the Adams Prize at Cambridge University (named for the mathematician John Couch Adams. like the Maxwellians. but the rotating fraction of the fluid spins out into ever finer and more filigreed threads. alongside FitzGerald. He took off into realms of fluid behavior that were permissible. though. Regarded as a fluid. under Newtonian mechanics. Heaviside.” he recalled in his dry but oddly humorous way. he pushed ahead. on the other hand. which he called the vortex sponge. When he died in 1879 his guiding intelligence was lost. and took a long time. but Thomson turned this disappointment into a new model of the ether.” and he cited vectors as a specific example. Undeterred. continued to develop vortex models despite evident shortcomings. J. and that its fate must be to become dissipated. but so far removed from the world of tangible phenomena that to most of his colleagues it seemed he had lost sight of . J. and the rest. remains constant. The vortex sponge was so difficult to analyze that even Thomson could only come up with inexact solutions that he hoped captured the essential physics. it could support waves with a form analogous to electromagnetic waves in Maxwell’s theory—or approximately so. “Like most problems in vortex motion. who in 1843 had predicted the existence of Neptune from its perturbing influence on other planets) was the interaction of two vortex rings. Thomson won the prize. It consisted of a fine-grained admixture of rotating and nonrotating elements.” The total amount of rotation. Had he lived.KELVIN 285 often transform a perplexing expression into another which explains its meaning in more intelligible language. so that the rotating and nonrotating parts of a fluid become ever more minutely intermixed. I came to the conclusion that it is essentially unstable. He had realized that the original assumption of vortex ring stability was not quite watertight: “After many years of failure to prove that the motion in the ordinary Helmholtz circular ring is stable. Thomson. That was the end of the vortex atom. it “involved long and complicated mathematical analysis. sought to pare and simplify. Most.” Few besides William Thomson saw in the increasing complexity and difficulty of vortex analysis the prospect of a universal theory. it is clear Maxwell would have been a Maxwellian. as Helmholtz had proved. trying to pin down the exact nature of the little rotating elements in his sponge ether.

and to be happy with a vector and delighted with a page of symmetrical formulas. to be contented with two formulas for energy. Now Kelvin was saying ether and matter could occupy the same portion of space and know nothing of each other. but have not found it.” It had always been the goal to find an ether model that explained electromagnetic phenomena in their own right and also explained their interaction with matter. . I do not mean some of each day and some of each night. All this time I have been liable to fits of ether dipsomania. This was not a suggestion embraced by other physicists. 28 1846 [his early works on analogies between electric fields and elasticity]. kept away at intervals only by rigorous abstention of thought on the subject. I do not mean all of every day and all of every night. when Thomson spoke to the Institution of Electrical Engineers in praise of Heaviside’s improved theory of telegraphy and practical electromagnetism.286 Degrees Kelvin his goal of constructing an ether model that was comprehensible because it was “mechanical. to find an explanation. I have not had a moment’s peace or happiness in respect to electromagnetic theory since Nov. “I may add that I have been considering the subject for forty-two years—night and day for forty-two years.” Seven years later. . . we may simply deny the scholastic axiom that two portions of matter cannot jointly occupy the same space. he spoke plainly of his unhappiness with the state of affairs as it then stood. is full of a froth theory of the ether! This will lend itself to sarcasm even better than the jelly theory. that ether does occupy the same space as ponderable matter. but the subject has been on my mind all these years.” Rayleigh wrote to a physicist friend: “Sir W. “It is mere nihilism. having no part or lot in Natural Philosophy. I have been trying. writing again to FitzGerald.” In 1889. as an admissible hypothesis.” Five years later Lord Kelvin took to a desperate assertion: “It has occurred to me that. but neither would he accept the bare mathematical formalism of the Maxwellians. electromagnetic and electrostatic. nothing much had changed. many days and many nights. He could not find a satisfactory ether model. and may assert. without contravening anything we know from observation of nature. *** .

went with him. Their collaboration on telegraph matters had subsided over the years. They preferred the East Coast. . In 1885 Fleeming Jenkin died at the age of 52 after what should have been minor surgery. and on their tour they got as far west as Denver. unlike that awful Chicago. whom he had known and admired since their first meeting in the Rhine valley almost 40 years earlier. which was “quite English. Of his siblings only his brother Robert in Australia still lived. lovely house on the Moidart Peninsula. already concerned about his health. Helmholtz. and never fully recovered his physical or mental strength. David Thomson King. His wife. Agnes wrote her own personal reminiscence.” Anna von Helmholtz reported home. On the steamer returning to Europe.) Elizabeth edited her mother’s memoir of Kelvin and added her own recollections. His sister Elizabeth died in 1896. James Thomson Bottomley. Elizabeth had three surviving children. but they had not seen each other since Robert left Scotland in 1850 and would never do so again. and lectured frequently when Kelvin was away on business. His brother James. Kelvin’s growing isolation was not only intellectual. . having reached 77 years of age. He suffered a stroke the following summer and . had decided to visit the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. More affecting for Kelvin was the death in 1894 of Hermann von Helmholtz. who had been beside him at Glasgow as professor of engineering since the death of Rankine in 1872. had gone into the cabling business and died in a shipwreck in 1875. died in 1892 at the age of 70. Friends and colleagues were beginning to disappear too. which they found dull and unsophisticated. lost consciousness. but having been professor of engineering at Edinburgh since 1868 Jenkin saw Thomson from time to time and made the acquaintance of the Blackburns at their lonely. performed experiments for him. (Another son. to whom Kelvin remained close. Some intellectual interest attaches to this city. her daughters Elizabeth and Agnes. son of his long-dead sister Anna. Boston in particular. . was his assistant in Glasgow. Helmholtz fell badly down a narrow stairway. and a son George who figures little in family tales. Robert died in 1905. generally lived with him there or at Netherhall. at the age of 72. Kelvin had a collection of nieces and nephews. where he took up highland dancing with enthusiasm.KELVIN 287 As the end of the century approached.

Whereas Kelvin had started as a mathematician and moved toward physics and engineering. 1968. due largely to the efforts of Lord Rayleigh.) In Kelvin’s unconstrained company it was impossible to indulge in formalities. . when he was about to correct in front of distinguished guests Her Majesty’s misstatement on some nautical question. and Helmholtz gladly let go the attempt.288 Degrees Kelvin died a few months later.” a niece reported. for example. Not until 1900. had exerted no great effort to bring it about. Scientifically. makers of instruments and solvers of problems more than philosophers. and taught himself mathematics. who was not as powerful a mathematician as Kelvin. perhaps wearied by his old battles with the Admiralty. More characteristic is a tale recounted by Lord Rayleigh’s son. His death took away one of the few people whose opinions Kelvin could occasionally bring himself to attend to. Kelvin 5Lord Rayleigh. Both became public figures in their own countries. did the British government inaugurate the National Physical Laboratory in the London suburbs. He made great contributions to the physical understanding of hearing and sound.5 Helmholtz. p. At the Edinburgh British Association meeting in 1892. Helmholtz and Kelvin had much in common. Helmholtz had trained as a physician. reported when Helmholtz stayed with him in Cambridge for a couple of days that “there is not very much to be got out of him in conversation” (Strutt. a reticent man himself. “Helmholtz and Uncle William were inseparable. In Germany Helmholtz was regarded by many younger researchers as a fearsome man of stiff formality. though Helmholtz was an able administrator while Kelvin remained a free spirit in matters of bureaucracy and organizations. and both spoke a good deal in the sections. Kelvin was oblivious to matters of etiquette. (Fanny once had to shush him at dinner with Queen Victoria. 130). moved to physics. Both were versatile and ingenious. and he never once tried to make an ether model. In fact he was rather shy. Kelvin saw the need for such an institute in his own country but. a project that Werner Siemens had both pushed for politically and underwritten financially. had a stronger and simpler sense of physics. Helmholtz had served as first director of the Physikalische-Technische Reichsanstalt in Berlin— the world’s first government-funded laboratory for applied science and technology.

and here it is again in 1895!” Then he was persuaded to keep reading anyway and started to see there was something to the idea after all. Rayleigh also remarked on the difficulty of getting Kelvin to concentrate on some argument. a patient and long-suffering man. was greeted by banner headlines and extravagant prose on the front page of the local newspaper. “The Men of Science Arriving. Thomson recalled. Stokes. Stokes got his dander up enough to resist: “He was so much in earnest that Kelvin for once could not get a word in edgeways: as soon as he started to speak. The visit of the noted savants. He remarked in passing during the Baltimore lectures how “I always consulted my great authority.” the Toronto Globe . On the other hand. He pounced on a textbook from Rayleigh’s library to learn more about this theory but came across some smallish error after a couple of pages and immediately put the book aside: “It is Mayer’s old mistake of 1842. When they talked in person at Cambridge.” observed Rayleigh to his son.KELVIN 289 was visiting the Terling estate “full of indignation” at some new electrolytic theory he had recently heard about. when Kelvin was talking wildly about atoms. he enjoyed compensations in the form of his reputation and public demand for his pronouncements. to bring a point finally to Kelvin’s full attention.” On just one occasion. even to the extent of reading a page of a paper: “The first line would send him off on some train of thought of his own. “Stokes would remain silent until Kelvin seemed at any rate to pause. after Kelvin had left. and his eye would wander from the printed page. or rather natural philosophy. as it were. Kelvin prominent among them. “He will think before long that he discovered it himself. J. represented by this time a source of frustration and even failure to Kelvin.” Throughout his long travails over ether theories Kelvin had corresponded with Stokes on the finer points of fluid mechanics. and which he could not suppress. whenever I got a chance. J. it often took repetitious explanations from Stokes.” Even so.” *** If physics. pushed Kelvin back into his seat. Stokes raised his hand in a solemn way and. this time in Toronto. Kelvin would butt in after almost every sentence with some idea which had just occurred to him. In 1897 the British Association met again in Canada. when Stokes was speaking.

Kelvin featured strongly in reports from the Friday sessions. they saw news of their meeting blazoned across the entire front page of the Globe. about the supply of oxygen in the atmosphere. for which the Globe’s valiant but struggling headline writer came up with the banner “A Day of Good Things: Extremely Interesting Proceedings at the Meeting of the British Association. Kelvin spoke about the world’s supply of coal and.290 Degrees Kelvin informed its readers on Monday.” By 1893 the international commission had chosen a . with woodcuts depicting the university buildings and the emblems of the British Association. the Men of Science arrived.” When. more provocatively. but his fearlessness in tackling enormous questions by means of a few simple scientific assumptions showed he had lost none of his bravado. since only a tiny fraction of vegetation turns into coal. and if all ancient plants decayed and turned into fuel of one sort or another. electricity generation and distribution began to blossom. Kelvin had spoken to a British parliamentary committee on the advantages of electricity over gas for lighting and industrial purposes and said then that he “believed the Falls of Niagara would in the future be used for the production of light and mechanical power over a large area of North America. In 1890 he had been invited by an American consortium to serve as chairman of an international commission to study the feasibility of electricity generation from Niagara Falls. the next day. Kelvin had come to Toronto after visiting Niagara. then he could show that the ultimate limit on terrestrial power would come not from running out of coal but from running out of oxygen to combust it with. an idea first seriously proposed by William Siemens in 1887. along with reports of cordial welcoming speeches from the mayor and others. crucially. He offered an ingenious calculation: If all atmospheric oxygen came up originally from the respiration of plants. assuring them on Wednesday that the city was “Ready for the Men of Science. as the coal-based economy went from strength to strength and. which drew hearty thanks from the distinguished visitors. in fact. August 16. This is not at all true. which the burning of coal used up. bringing what had been industrial matters into the domestic realm. where he had official business as a consultant on continuing efforts to generate electricity from the power of the falls. however.” The question of large-scale power production and consumption had only lately impinged on public consciousness. As early as 1879.

however. she reported. Kelvin. so the amount of horse-power developed will increase. notably Union Carbide and American Cyanamide. Speaking to the British Parliament two decades earlier. . had set up plants to take advantage of the newly abundant electric power. In interviews with local reporters he talked of a time “when the whole water from Lake Erie will find its way to the lower level of Lake Ontario through machinery.” Kelvin’s attitude toward nature was a little inconsistent. even the best copper. and two years later the first power plant came into operation.KELVIN 291 design offered by Westinghouse. until the whole water power of Niagara will be used for doing mechanical work. He may have been happy to see Niagara Falls vanish. Since then. I do not hope that our children’s children will ever see the Niagara cataract. able to transmit power for hundreds of miles.” He repeated his prediction to a Toronto reporter: “As the demand goes on increasing. he had thought more closely about the economics of power loss and formulated what has sometimes been called Kelvin’s law of power transmission: . and a number of industries. As Joule had first shown more than half a century ago. Kelvin had talked of thick copper conductors in the form of tubes. the nearby town of Niagara Falls was lit by electricity. When Kelvin visited in 1897. with mist adorning the mountains. Kelvin looked grandiosely ahead. with cooling water running down them. two generators were running. doing more good for the world than even that great scene which we now possess in contemplation of the splendid scene which we have before us in the waterfall of Niagara. had some resistance to an electric current. was annoyed that the artist had not waited until the mist cleared because it obscured a notable geological feature. Impressed by the scale of activity. Kelvin envisaged a time when electricity from Niagara would travel farther afield. but he loathed motor cars and voted in the House of Lords for a bill restricting the use of cars because he didn’t want to see the pristine Scottish landscape ruined. Higher voltages and lower currents meant more efficient transmission of power. that power loss went in proportion to the resistance times the square of the current. but high voltages presented dangers and practical difficulties. which generated heat and wasted power. In London on one occasion his niece Agnes took him to an art exhibition and showed him a romantic painting of Glen Sannox. . Any wire. but the transmission of electric power was a controversial scientific question. .

Kelvin at first smiled indulgently and carried on talking. His clothes fit badly.” the Buffalo reporter told his readers. when he won the Silver Sculls at Cambridge. .” Kelvin had some years earlier allied himself with the losing side of the peculiarly fierce controversy that raged. he was a little more generous: He thought power might usefully travel 20 or even 30 miles from the falls.292 Degrees Kelvin The “most economical size of the copper conductor for the electric transmission of energy . His head is large and his gray beard is thin and straggling. “The man with the title looks and acts like a plain citizen. Kelvin gave out his opinions freely during his visit and spoke easily to journalists. if 20. “He is very lame. “I would not advise manufacturers to settle farther than ten miles from Niagara Falls. around 1890. On the second occasion he “looked annoyed. . . Lord Kelvin is approachable and affable. but there is something in his appearance that does not belie his youthful record as an athlete. but he recoiled from such large potentials.” wrote one. “A gentleman of exceedingly pleasant manners” with an “amiability of disposition.000 volts were used. His baldness runs to the crown and his immense forehead is smooth and polished as a roc’s egg. .” During the interview Sellers kept interrupting to say that Lord Kelvin was hungry and wished to go to dinner.” Guided by this principle he now estimated that electricity could travel up to 300 miles with acceptable power loss. His small blue eyes are kindly and genial in their expression. He looked at Coleman Sellers for a moment.” he told a reporter for the Buffalo Express. . Speaking just the next day to a Toronto reporter. .” The Buffalo reporter reported with dry humor the contrast between this member of the British nobility and “a plain American citizen. The plain citizen looks and acts as if he were the autocrat of all the Russias. the elevation to a lofty social position.” the chief Niagara engineer Coleman Sellers. over the rela- . “Lord Kelvin is short and thin and gray and plain. . after the English fashion. . . . “He is a remarkable example of a great man whose native character has remained unchanged despite . would be found by comparing the annual interest on the money value of the copper with the money value of the energy lost in it annually in the heat generated in it by the electric current.” Finally Sellers dragged him away by the arm. then turned to the reporter again.

A given alternating voltage will transmit less power down a wire than the same direct voltage. The transformer—two coils of wire wrapped around a common iron core. Kelvin himself never abandoned his preference for direct current. had given a presentation in 1888 describing the virtues and promise of his “polyphase generator” for producing alternating currents at high voltage.KELVIN 293 tive merits of direct current and alternating current systems for power transmission. approximately 1. A changing electromagnetic field induces a current in a wire. heard the talk and promptly hired Tesla away from Edison to design power transmission systems using the new technology. and this is why direct current transformers do not exist. The numerical factor of importance here is the square root of 2. Edison.414. when a few thousand volts of either will satisfactorily kill anyone. There is a smidgen of reason at the bottom of the argument. through zero. however. brought over from the Edison laboratories in Paris to work with Thomas Edison himself at Menlo Park. Having calculated costs and efficiencies. The debate took off when the eccentric Serbian engineer Nikola Tesla. A somewhat higher voltage is needed for an alternating current system to achieve the same efficiency in transmission as a direct current system. And higher voltage means greater danger. neglected utterly the relative ease (and therefore lower cost) of producing large alternating voltages and reducing them to safe values for domestic use. For efficient power trans- . started a campaign assailing the dangers of alternating current. George Westinghouse. a devout direct current man. the same device Faraday had used in 1831 to demonstrate simple electromagnetic induction—could step alternating voltages up and down with no fuss. It fit in with his idealized law about the economics of power transmission. a railway entrepreneur. to the same peak value in the opposite direction. the height of which involved proposing that a man sent to the electric chair should be said to have been “westinghoused” or “consigned to the westinghouse. Although the Niagara commission that Kelvin chaired endorsed Westinghouse’s alternating current system for the falls. and so on.” The suggestion that alternating current is fearsomely dangerous while direct current is pleasantly safe seems absurd. he insisted it made sense to choose the better solution. a static one does not. because the alternating current oscillates from some peak value. This argument.


Degrees Kelvin

mission, high voltages are essential, and direct current systems cannot do the job. Kelvin understood all these matters perfectly well, yet insisted that the quantitative efficiency argument ought to trump all other concerns. It is an extreme example of the kind of tunnel vision he increasingly showed on technological as well as scientific matters. Having once grasped a certain point of view and justified it with an appropriately quantitative analysis, he seemed impervious to all other considerations. It was the nearest thing he possessed to a philosophy of science. In one of his most famous and memorable remarks about the power of the scientific method, he declared: “I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind: it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.” This was the wellspring of his attitude in all departments of science—indeed in all useful kinds of rational thought. It was why he favored the precise arguments of physics limiting the lifetimes of the earth and the sun over the woolly speculations of geologists and biologists. It was why, in a broader sense, he insisted on literally mechanical models of ether and atoms and would not succumb to the nihilism of the Maxwellians, who were willing to accept a mathematical structure based on no tangible model. Where in that were physical notions he could touch, assess, and quantify? Kelvin valued mathematics not for any formal elegance or alleged esthetic qualities but because it enabled him to think and reason with confidence. Mathematics “is merely the etherealisation of common sense,” he told the citizens of Birmingham in an address at the town hall there in 1883. In a similar vein he praised empirical science, bolstered by mathematical argument, over abstract theorizing. Opening new laboratories at University College in Bangor, Wales, in 1885, he said forcefully: “There is one thing I feel strongly in respect to investigation in physical or chemical laboratories—it leaves no room for shady, doubtful distinctions between truth, half-truth, whole falsehood. In the laboratory everything is found either true or not true. Every result is true. Nothing not



proved true is a result;—there is no such thing as doubtfulness.” And further, if merely measuring things seemed like dull work, he declared that when investigation is done with a purpose, “measurement itself becomes an object to inspire the worker with interested ardour. Dulness [sic] does not exist in science.” Reason flowing from quantitative knowledge suffused Kelvin’s attitude toward life in general. When he visited Stokes in Cambridge, the two elderly men used any opportunity to engage in playfully intense scientific analysis. “For instance, the eggs were always boiled in an eggboiler on the table, and Lord Kelvin would wish to boil them by mathematical rule and economy of fuel, with preliminary measurements by the millimetre scale, and so on,” the physicist Joseph Larmor recalled. In more serious matters, Kelvin’s insistence on simplicity of thought came across as naivete. At an 1887 dinner commemorating the jubilee of Britain’s first telegraph line (from Euston to Camden, in London), he confidently informed the assembled guests that instant telegraphic communication between London and Dublin demonstrated “the utter scientific absurdity of any sentimental need for a separate parliament in Ireland. [This] seems to me a great contribution of science to the political welfare of the world.” Oceanic telegraphy, despite the expectations of editorial writers for the Times of London and New York, had not banished international tension and war; it was hardly likely to quell the ancient disagreements between Ireland and England. But these disputes were, to Kelvin, irrational to begin with; they ought not, therefore, to exist in the first place, and so he imagined it would be an easy matter to dispose of them, if only people would talk plainly and stick to the facts.

Plain talk had not dissipated Kelvin’s scientific disagreements. Some of the novel discoveries of the 1890s were more revolutionary than others. When Wilhelm Röntgen announced in 1895 the discovery of a penetrating kind of radiation that could pass through flesh and create an image of bones, Kelvin hoped at first it would bear out an aspect of his mechanical conception of the ether. In Maxwell’s theory, electromagnetic radiation consisted strictly of transverse waves, or side-to-side oscillations, as of a violin string. But if the ether bearing electromagnetic radiation


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were some kind of solid-liquid-jelly-sponge affair, then in general it would be expected to support longitudinal waves, or alternations of compression and rarefaction along the direction of radiation, rather than perpendicular to it. Perhaps the Röntgen waves were longitudinal ether oscillations. Kelvin had held out ever since the Baltimore lectures that such waves, absent from Maxwell’s theory, could not be ruled out and ought to be sought experimentally. Quickly, though, it became apparent that X rays, as the new radiation became known, were ordinary electromagnetic waves beyond the ultraviolet, with higher energy and shorter wavelength than had been encountered before. Kelvin (whose confidence in his numerous ether models was wavering anyway) accepted this conclusion with little hesitation. Electrons, J. J. Thomson’s discovery of 1897, also fitted in at first with Kelvin’s view of the physical world. That there might exist tiny objects carrying electric charge was no great surprise. What exactly they were remained mysterious. Inevitably, Kelvin’s thoughts took him in his own direction. In a 1902 essay eccentrically entitled “Aepinus Atomized,” he tried to revive, in modern clothing, a mid-18th-century theory of electricity due to Franz Ulrich Theodor Aepinus of Rostock, in what is now northern Germany. Aepinus proposed that there was a single kind of electric substance, of which an excess represented a positive charge and a deficit a negative charge. Kelvin proposed that “Aepinus’ fluid consists of exceedingly minute equal and similar atoms, which I call electrions, much smaller than the atoms of ponderable matter.” These electrions were not simply free particles reacting to electric forces alone. They interacted with atoms of ordinary matter through a complicated force law. A neutral atom contained a certain number of electrions; with too few or too many, an atom acquired an overall electric charge. The forces controlling the loss and reacquisition of electrions by atoms were meant, Kelvin explained, to account for the variety of chemical properties displayed by the atoms of the (newly formulated) periodic table. And he hoped too he could explain the geometry of crystal lattices and the regular arrangement of atoms in solids through this single force law. This proposal, complex yet sketchy, was entirely characteristic of Kelvin’s thinking. Beginning with a handful of simple assumptions



(electrions, atoms, a force law between them), it quickly piled up mathematical complications, without yielding specific predictions. It was, to use another historical term, a Boscovichian theory, harking back to the ideas of Roger Boscovich, an 18th-century Serbo-Croat priest who had proposed a model in which both attractive and repulsive forces operated between atoms, depending on the distance between them. By adjusting the force appropriately, Boscovich hoped to explain chemical reactions, absorption, adhesion, and so on. Not too many years earlier Kelvin had hoped his vortex atoms, in which the only ingredients were a suitable ether and Newtonian mechanics, would provide a universal explanation of matter. But that project had failed, and Kelvin reached back to the 18th century for ideas that had been proposed as philosophical speculations but never developed into mathematical theory. The weakness of Boscovichian atomic theory, from the modern perspective, is that the force law between atoms is assumed into existence and made as complicated as it needed to be in order to explain whatever the theory was meant to explain. But this was Kelvin’s way of thinking, taken to a final extreme. Forces and particles he was happy with, though the particles were of a mysterious nature and the forces complex and unproven. On the other hand, he still would not accept the disembodied field theory of the Maxwellians.

Kelvin celebrated his 75th birthday in 1899 and at last retired from his position as professor of natural philosophy6 at Glasgow University. Except for five years at Cambridge and a few months in Paris, he had belonged to the university, student and teacher, for 67 years, going back to the days when, as an eight-year-old boy, he sat in on his father’s math-

6In the matter of terminology Kelvin had an ally in Heaviside: “For my part I always admired the old-fashioned term ‘natural philosopher.’ It was so dignified, and raised up visions of the portraits of Count Rumford, Young, Herschel, Sir H. Davy, &c., usually highly respectable-looking elderly gentlemen, with very large bald heads, and much wrapped up about the throats, sitting in their studies pondering calmly over the secrets of nature revealed to them by their experiments. There are no natural philosophers now-a-days” (Heaviside, 1951, vo1. 1, p. 5).


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ematics lectures. He insisted on maintaining a connection and on his retirement was duly enrolled as a “research student” of the university. But he lectured no more and was free to spend his summer months in London, where he engaged in scientific or political or commercial business, or in the south of France for his own and his wife’s health, returning in the winter to Netherhall. In this peripatetic life he was never without a green notebook, in which he jotted ideas and worked out bits of theory and noted experimental suggestions and corresponded with his fellow natural philosophers as furiously as ever. Health problems occasionally slowed him down. Late in 1895 his bad leg troubled him, becoming swollen and keeping him in the house well into the following year. Forced into physical inactivity, he redoubled his demands of everyone else. Propped up in bed, wearing a bright red jacket draped over with a blue and white quilt, and with papers and notebooks scattered all about him, he issued notes and instructions and urgent demands. His recovery was interrupted by a bout of pleurisy, but he was well again by the time of his jubilee that summer. Toward the end of that year he suffered for the first time an acute attack of facial pain, diagnosed as inflammation of the fifth nerve. Such attacks, lasting a few days and disappearing as abruptly as they came, troubled him for the rest of his life. “A horrid demon of the No. 5 nerve,” he sometimes called it, and it caused him to cancel lectures and miss dinner engagements. But he rebelled at being cooped up, and when the pain departed he resumed his robust and enthusiastic habits and traveled and lectured and socialized as much as ever. In 1902 he and Lady Kelvin embarked on another trip to the United States, his fourth and last. It was a triumphal tour. Arriving in New York on April 19, he immediately went to Columbia University to attend the installation of a new president. He mingled with a distinguished crowd, including President Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie. Kelvin, “looking very venerable, limping, and wearing a large monocle,” came in on the arm of the governor of New York. He spoke to a reporter for the New York Times, full of enthusiasm for Marconi’s wireless telegraph but dismissive of heavier-than-air flight by dirigible. Two evenings later the American Institute of Electrical Engineers gave a reception for him, where he met Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and many other luminaries of the



burgeoning U.S. electrical industry. Traveling down to Washington, D.C., he stayed with Mr. and Mrs. George Westinghouse, who gave the noble couple a grand dinner, with numerous distinguished guests, both political and academic. On April 24 Kelvin testified before a congressional committee in favor of a metrication bill. He wished his own country would take the initiative, he said, but added that he would be glad to see the United States in the vanguard, so long as the goal was accomplished. Then it was on to Niagara, to observe the great progress there not only in the generation of electricity but in the accompanying rise of power-hungry industries. He saw a plant that made nitric acid from atmospheric nitrogen and inspected an electric furnace. “There is practically no limit to the temperature the electric furnace can get,” he mused out loud. “It ought to be easy to manufacture the diamond” from ordinary carbon. This was reported in both the Times of April 28 and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle of April 29, but when a Rochester reporter asked him about it the following day he responded with a smile, “Oh, there is nothing practical in that.” In Rochester his host was George Eastman, founder of Kodak, of which Kelvin had been named a director (he was also vice-chairman of the Kodak Company of London). He talked of the scientific basis of photography and also of its scientific potential, particularly in astronomy. The purpose of his visit to Rochester, indeed of this whole trip to the United States, was to inspect the new camera works and offer his technical advice on the many new processes and technologies operating there. But his opinion on science past, present, and future was always in demand. The Rochester reporter found him altogether down to earth. “Before Lord Kelvin has been conversing five minutes, the visitor is beguiled into thinking that he has known Lord Kelvin as long as he has known anybody. His courteous, unaffected manner puts one at ease at once.” Kelvin held forth on electric power transmission (“a success . . . no longer an experiment”) and on wireless telegraphy (“I think Marconi has got it”), but soon the conversation turned to the possibility of power generation from Rochester’s river, the Genesee. Now Kelvin began to pepper his interviewer with questions about the size and course of the river, the falls running to the lake, and the numerous tributary streams. A detailed map and an engineer’s survey were fetched. Before long Kelvin


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had picked out a plausible location for a hydroelectric plant and assured the reporter that power could satisfactorily be carried from there to the city itself, but he cautioned that these were preliminary ideas. His combination of unfettered thinking with insistence on precision impressed the reporter. “He is too exact in his methods to announce a conclusion prematurely, although he is wonderfully quick to grasp details and is as keen for information on the subject like the water power of the Genesee as a newspaper reporter.” Though the Rochester journalist could not know it, this was his attitude to ether models and atomic theories too. Once the concept was set down, it was a matter of working out all the details, and unless all the details could be got right at once, no solution was yet acceptable. There followed Kelvin’s raucous reception at the university, where an attack of the number five demon kept his remarks briefer than he had intended, except that once he warmed up to his task he carried on anyway. He described to the students his own fortunate life, as the child and product of universities, who had spent his whole existence in or around colleges. “Both as a student and as a professor, I love the college atmosphere.” He urged his listeners to “acquire knowledge, and make use of every hour. As we grow to advanced age, we can look back upon the pictures formed in the college days. Fill your minds with these pictures. They are pleasant to bring to your recollection as you grow to age.” Mellow thoughts such as these were probably lost on his youthful audience, but Kelvin’s nostalgia was, typically, of a pleasurable kind. Fond recollection, not regret—but then he was a man who had never wasted a moment, so that even what he came to regard as failure might seem time well spent, in a worthy endeavor. On a tour of the university Kelvin eagerly looked over the physics and chemistry laboratories but insisted also on seeing the boiler rooms and the heating and ventilation systems, which he “commended . . . in high terms.” A day or two later he left Rochester for a reception at Cornell, then continued on to Yale to take an honorary degree. Lord and Lady Kelvin traveled by private railroad carriage, furnished by George Eastman and filled by his wife with orchids and violets from their conservatory. The eager reporter from the Rochester Democrat and

anxious to hear more about Kelvin’s ideas for electricity generation from the Genesee River. Kelvin talked briefly of his fascination with the camera works he had seen in Rochester. “I work on these proofs whenever I get even fifteen minutes’ time. Discussions would take place. Kelvin immediately took up page proofs that needed his urgent attention. to make sure that he was not dreaming.” Kelvin told the starry-eyed reporter. it was said. They were grand plans indeed. who is in a position to speak with authority. As the reporter made to leave. which would satisfactorily transmit power up to 100 miles with acceptable losses. to be published finally in book form.” he said. the reporter “covertly pinched himself. It hardly needs saying that Kelvin’s extravagant plan for a system of direct current generators and transmission lines spreading across the Genesee valley to Rochester never came to pass. They represented a version.000 volts. As Kelvin elaborated on his plan.KELVIN 301 Chronicle joined the train for the first part of the journey. with careful comments from “one gentleman. “A cat may make a connection across the wires. presented Rochester with the formula by which its greatness is to be achieved and its dream of practically unlimited power for industrial purposes realized. but a good deal of preliminary investigation would be needed. This “greatest of living scientists. whose simple dictum is law in matters electrical. of the Baltimore lectures he had given almost 20 years earlier. whose achievements on physical lines have deservedly carried him to the highest rank of England’s nobility .000 volts each. Two days later the Rochester newspaper ran another story. voltages on neighboring high-tension cables could differ enormously if their currents were out of phase. He explained that with the multiphase system pioneered by Tesla and Westinghouse. *** . if the newspaper account is to be believed. Kelvin proposed instead a system of 20 direct current generators at 2.” scotching rumors that a company had already been formed to put Kelvin’s plan into effect.” The reporter noted that Kelvin went against standard practice by proposing direct rather than alternating currents for transmission. . . connected in series to produce 40. and in its death disable the system.” After an hour of these thrilling revelations.

its age could be many times greater than the age calculated long ago by Kelvin. But at the end of September. this new source of energy had implications for the age of the earth and the sun. Darwin did not hesitate to conclude that any energy released by radioactive atoms must have been stored up somehow beforehand. that an atom of matter is capable of containing an enormous store of energy in itself. George Darwin weighed in.” It seemed like energy from nowhere. In a very short note published in Nature on July 9. Curie and Laborde’s finding caused a stir in the physics world. I think we have no right to assume that the sun is incapable of liberating atomic energy. not least because the nature of atoms remained mysterious. and reckoned that if the sun as a whole were made of some such material. [and] has left every chemist and physicist in a state of bewilderment. This was seven years after Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity. shortly after the BA meeting. of the heat released by radium. This was all speculative. an amateur astronomer by the name of William Wilson calculated that the entire output of energy by the sun could be accounted for if the sun contained 3. he admitted. but “knowing. to a degree at least comparable to that which it would do if made of radium. however. At the British Association meeting in September of that year there was a demonstration of a little piece of radium making the mercury rise in an ordinary thermometer. appearing out of an otherwise inert mineral. Joly of Dublin applied the same thinking to the age of the earth. He cited recent measurements by the young New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford.302 Degrees Kelvin In March 1903 Pierre Curie and Albert Laborde announced that the radioactive decay of a radium salt released heat. A week later J. Whatever the explanation. 1903. it could not create energy from nothing. then at McGill University in Montreal. The nature of the transmutation was baffling.” Unlike the commentator at the BA meeting. and the transmutation of an atom of one element into an atom of another was an established fact. Whatever an atom might be.6 grams of radium in every cubic meter. Kelvin had always assumed that the planet was a passively cool- . as we now do. One scientist commented that this phenomenon “can barely be distinguished from the discovery of perpetual motion. This simplistic but telling bit of arithmetic attracted little notice. which it is an axiom of science to call impossible.

in 1896 and 1898. stored it up temporarily. he said. was among those who established the possibility of dating rocks by assaying the radioactive decay products they contained. His last year was miserable. Atoms took in energy. to the effect that he thought radioactive heat must come not from within the decaying atoms but ultimately from the surrounding ether. and in presentations at succeeding BA meetings. but increasingly detached from the developing ideas about atoms. He won the British amateur championship twice. where it exists in a form we have not yet found the means of detecting. Joly concluded confusedly that “the hundred million years which the doctrine of uniformity requires may. Lord Rayleigh’s son. who became the fourth Lord Rayleigh in 1919 when his father died. with components held in place by forces whose form he concocted for the purpose. ages of hundreds of millions of years were spoken of for perfectly ordinary minerals in the earth’s crusts. Kelvin responded at the 1903 BA meeting with off-the-cuff remarks. spring loaded by absorbing energy from the ether. Soon. it was the physicists who had beaten the geologists down to 100 million years. These models were inventive and ingenious. so to speak. later written up in more elaborate form. The heat. One of Tait’s lasting contributions . possibly at speeds exceeding the speed of light. had originally assumed unlimited time. shooting “electrions” and other fragments into space.KELVIN 303 ing body. Robert Strutt. Freddie.” The uniformitarians. had taken up golf as soon as he could walk and became one of the great players of his day. Tait. yet be gladly accepted by the physicist. Tait took fierce pride in his son’s achievements. slowly losing whatever original heat it had possessed. One old combatant who did not speak in this final round of the debate over the age of the earth was P.” In papers published in the next couple of years. of course. he reached back again to the old ideas of Aepinus and Boscovich to devise mechanical models of the atoms. His third son. along with other young men such as Frederick Soddy. Rutherford. These atoms could be. comes “from without the atoms. who had died in 1901. in fact. as ever. were measuring precisely the heat released in radioactive transformations and determining the identity of the particles released. the old argument fell apart. Then they would burst apart. and released it when they decayed. But if radioactive minerals constantly generated interior heat. G.

a lieutenant in the Black Watch. . politics.” The following summer he had the use of a friend’s house and sat in the garden clutching his copy of Low’s book. I do not think that he ever got back into his true gait after Freddie’s death. the light seemed to have left the eyes which in repose often wore an expression of weariness. imparts lift and thus allows the ball to fly much farther than if it were not spinning. simply leaving one day and never coming back to the lecture room. We had keen differences (much more frequent agreements) on every conceivable subject. On December 11 he was wounded by a bullet in his leg at the Battle of Magersfontein. Freddie Tait. He died on July 4 at the age of 70. with none of his former vigor. this was a large factor in the success of our alliance for heavy work. was vanquished utterly by the death of his beloved son. When the Boer War erupted in 1899 between British forces and rebellious Afrikaaners. cheery sporting fellow. reading over and over again the accounts of Freddie’s tournaments and victories. in which we persevered for eighteen years. Tait rejoiced that his son signed up and went to South Africa to fight. . His father doted on him. energy. John Low. via the agency of a fluid mechanical phenomenon called the Magnus effect. a golfing friend who published a life of Freddie Tait in 1900. cheerful humour . By the end of the month he had recovered. by no means an intellectual. Tait’s ferocity in debates over physics was matched by an equally intense patriotism. but the golf course now held only painful memories. He retired from teaching that winter. . shipped out on October 24. He went to St. but listlessly. . . . quicquid agunt . . who had lost never an atom of self-confidence in all his longrunning scientific controversies. . Early in February he was sent to Koodoosberg and on the seventh he was hit by a bullet to the chest and died where he fell.304 Degrees Kelvin to physics was his 1891 proof that backspin on a golf ball. 1899. . . recorded that “the Professor seemed very depressed as though afraid to enter into any conversation which might become reminiscent of the golf which had Freddie for its central figure. sailing out eagerly and unquestioningly to the fringe of the empire to defend British pride and power. Tait. the daily news. Young Tait was brave in a way that tends to excite mockery today—a good-hearted.—quaternions. In his obituary Kelvin recalled Tait’s “rough gaiety . Andrews as usual in the summer of 1900. He continued to teach. good-looking.

describing his numerous original researches and the help he freely offered over the years to other researchers.” The voluminous correspondence between Kelvin and Stokes—some 650 letters spanning 55 years—is almost wholly technical. saw a deeper response at Stokes’s funeral: “I shall always remember Lord Kelvin. saying in a low voice: ‘Stokes is gone. But Arthur Schuster.’” . He had served for some years in Parliament. be replaced. Occasionally there are personal remarks in the gruff style of Victorian men. under the old system by which Cambridge University nominated a member. dutifully attending every session and saying never a single word. likewise in earlier times. a young physicist. Stokes was a firm. after describing some changes he proposed in order to make the allotment of credit for original ideas scrupulously fair and unambiguous. J. Stokes surpassed Newton. His death is a loss to me which cannot. as long as I live. “My principal intelligence must belong to the non-scientific head which is that I am engaged to be married to Miss Robinson daughter of Dr Robinson.. on February 1. Kelvin’s obituary notice of Stokes was conventional enough. He had lived in Cambridge with his daughter’s family since the death of his wife in 1899. taciturn man. his lifelong adviser and consultant in mathematical physics. In 1879 Stokes assembled a selection of his papers for publication in book form and consulted Thomson on many points he wished to revise or refine. We never agreed to differ. and it is said he spoke only once. Thomson recalled that Stokes had great powers of analysis but was “exceedingly cautious about coming to a conclusion. such as when each announces to the other that he is about to be married.KELVIN 305 homines. in an unpunctuated rush. almost overcome by his emotion. George Gabriel Stokes. and I shall never return to Cambridge again. J. Isaac Newton had been M. Stokes was by then 83 years old and died quietly after a peaceful retirement. he signed off by remarking that “it is curious how these things bring back our work together in 1847. to ask for a window to be shut.” Stokes informed William Thomson in 1856. But it was almost as great a pleasure to fight with Tait as to agree with him. In one letter. Kelvin had to contend with the death of his oldest scientific friend and confidante. etc. this small plangent sentence is the closest either Stokes or Thomson came to a confession of intimacy. as he stood at the open grave. etc. P. 1903.” Barely 18 months later. including himself. always fought it out.” In their entire correspondence.

. the young physicist Joseph Larmor couched his reservations in carefully respectful terms. He proposed that heavier elements were compounds.” Confusion over the nature of radioactivity rumbled on. in the old-fashioned Newtonian clockwork sense. Kelvin’s “expression of distrust of ‘the so-called electro-magnetic theory of light’ stands as in the original. . And here we are at the parting of the ways. . in 1905 Einstein’s four remarkable papers on quantum theory and relativity ushered in a new era of physics. Commenting in Nature.” was a bizarre anachronism. of lighter ones. The appearance. Radium. His line of thinking was as much semantic as physical. and everyone liked him. In this chain of simple. not a true element in its own right. the need has ceased to be so strongly felt. supplemented with new materials such as his curious essay “Aepinus Atomized. . . Lord Kelvin has gradually forged a reconciliation between fact and theory that would probably have been received with universal acclaim thirty years ago. In 1900 Max Planck’s first intimation of quantum theory had appeared. . Nowadays.306 Degrees Kelvin *** Exactly 20 years after he had delivered his celebrated series of lectures in Baltimore. Kelvin was the most publicly known scientist of the day. between those milestones. and he would probably desire to modify the terms of the description in order to bring it closer to the train of dynamical ideas in which he would search for the explanation. that radioactive decay involved the transmutation of one element into another. but the intellectual foundation of this project remained what it had been in Baltimore—a mechanical universe. Nowadays. of Kelvin’s fantastically elaborated mechanical models of the ether. was a compound of helium and other lighter elements. yet brilliant and attractive ideas. knowing that atomic nuclei are built from protons and neu- . [Kelvin] would perhaps say that [Maxwell’s electromagnetism] is a successful description rather than an explanation. as regards most people. by then widely accepted. Kelvin published in 1904 the version he had been tinkering with off and on ever since. and split into their various components when they disintegrated. though they might mock his thinking. Details had changed to accommodate new discoveries. In August 1906 Kelvin wrote to the London Times arguing against the idea. The lectures were politely received. in a molecular sense. in other words.

. almost single-handed. . at least to one from which no one will grudge him the honours of war. and he was tremendously delighted and has gone to bed happy with a few small phosphorescent things I gave him. “Whatever opinion may be formed of the merits of the controversy. One might almost suggest that Kelvin was reaching in this direction. we say that the different elements are all combinations of the same ingredients. . Atomic disintegration is based on experimental evidence. which even its most hostile opponents are unable to shake or explain in any other way. Other physicists wrote in to disagree. on account of his great reputation and experience. I showed him and the ladies some experiments this evening. Lord Rayleigh’s estate. Frederick Soddy wrote to the paper on August 31. all must unite on admiration for the boldness with which Lord Kelvin initiated his campaign. They had met at a scientific party at Terling. the great pioneer of radioactivity and atomic theory. but since no one at that time had any clear idea of what atoms were made of. who had written to his mother years ago of his admiration for Kelvin. if not to a victorious termination. putting the case against Kelvin. Soddy’s veiled tribute to Kelvin came close to condescension.KELVIN 307 trons. and concluding that “it would be a pity if the public were misled into supposing that those who have not worked with radio-active bodies are as entitled to as weighty an opinion as those who have. The weight of years and the almost unanimous opinion of his younger colleagues against him have not deterred him from leading a lost cause. what appeared to many from the first almost a forlorn hope against the transmutational and evolutionary doctrines framed to account for the properties of radium. the debate had no real substance. could not help but think of the aging natural philosopher as a child.” Summarizing these inconclusive exchanges a few weeks later in Nature. The Times itself weighed in with an editorial asking for Kelvin’s views to be taken seriously. Rutherford described the proceedings to his wife: “Lord Kelvin has talked radium most of the day. and the intellectual keenness with which he conducted.” Even Ernest Rutherford. But young scientists have little respect for seniority.” . and I admire his confidence in talking about a subject of which he has taken the trouble to learn so little.

but as I came to the important point. In 1904 he had given a public lecture at the Royal Institution on radioactivity. provided no new source was discovered. and I said Lord Kelvin had limited the age of the earth.308 Degrees Kelvin Long afterward. I saw the old bird sit up. in which he intended to touch on the question of the earth’s age.” . Rutherford recalled that “to my relief. In his much-retold account. Kelvin fell fast asleep. and cock a baleful glance at me! Then a sudden inspiration came. Kelvin was in the audience. open an eye. That prophetic utterance refers to what we are now considering tonight. radium! Behold! the old boy beamed upon me. Rutherford recalled Kelvin with fond indulgence.

EPILOGUE ord Kelvin died on December 17. which took up energy from its surroundings then released it in a sudden burst of disintegration. But in March 1907. After a lecture on recent progress in astronomy. he expressed his opinions with vigor and with his old delight in argument. Soddy. “The impossibility of the transmutation of one element into any other he declared to be almost absolutely certain.” reported Nature from the BA.” Even so. L 309 . His views were sharp but hard to fathom. he had spoken up to praise the speaker and his message. he argued again for a sort of rechargeable atom. That year he had often appeared frailer and lamer to those who knew him well. probably because of a detached retina. 1907. in the house he had built some 30 years earlier. “Lord Kelvin preferred to regard the atom as a big gun loaded with an explosive shell. But at other times he was as lively as ever. At the British Association meeting in July at Leicester he had participated in a memorable discussion with Rutherford. At the 1904 BA meeting he had reportedly acknowledged that radioactive decay released energy locked up within the atom. He had lost none of his simple joy in the enlightenment that only science could provide. in one of his last published papers. at Netherhall. and others on radioactivity. and he had lost the sight in one eye.

Columba’s Episcopal Church in Largs and at Glasgow University’s Bute Hall. and other dignitaries. and we .310 Degrees Kelvin “In proposing a vote of thanks. Into this solemn and magnificent assembly in Westminster Abbey Kelvin’s coffin was borne to the accompaniment of Purcell’s Music for Queen Mary and Chopin’s Funeral March. arriving at Westminster Abbey on the morning of December 22. and brought back safely to Leicester on the wings of science. apparently from a stroke. a dark. but toward the end of November he caught a chill. the geologist Archibald Geikie. The Duchess of Argyll. The pall bearers included Lord Rayleigh. “Lord Kelvin burst into a sort of rhapsody. as did countless universities and scientific and technological associations from Great Britain and elsewhere. Lady Kelvin. for it is soon cut off. and well-nigh round the Universe. seemed to be on the mend. Lord and Lady Kelvin went to the south of France for their habitual month of rest. Following memorial services at St. took to his bed. cold. but by the middle of December he relapsed and died quietly a few days later. He himself stayed mostly well. foreign ambassadors. He was 83. in which. a personal friend. and George Darwin (Sir George by now). midwinter day. was there. manifested that combination of pomp and humility characteristic of high church Anglicanism. After the hymn “Brief Life Is Here Our Portion” came readings from Psalm 90 (“The days of our years are threescore years and ten.” one observer recalled. and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years. who had been Kelvin’s closest scientific confidante of the rising generation. he declared that we had been taken on a journey far more wonderful than that of Aladdin on the enchanted carpet. so was the First Lord of the Admiralty. Scientific societies from around the world sent representatives. still unwell. as she began to improve. and Kelvin’s old nautical ally Admiral Sir John Fisher. but after the long journey home Lady Kelvin collapsed at Netherhall on September 15. Kelvin stayed with her. remained in Scotland. Kelvin’s funeral at Westminster on the 23rd. Distinguished scientists joined with representatives of the Crown and the government. and the most marvellous thing about it all was that it was true!” From Leicester. with unaffected enthusiasm. Kelvin’s coffin went by train to London. we had been carried to the remotest stars. yet is their strength labour and sorrow.

Joule and Clausius. Thomson recalled a conversation in which Kelvin said he thought the most valuable work of his career had been the long struggle to limit the ages of the earth and the sun. and especially such unrecognized explorers as Carnot would have been gratified to see how their difficult endeavors and half-perceived ideas laid the foundation for what we now understand.” *** In writing about scientists of previous centuries and the mysteries they spent their lives trying to resolve. The Baltimore lectures. Obituary notices of Kelvin reflected this delicate judgment. xv (“O death. where is thy victory?”). or bring these scientists forward to the present day. a transformation of which Kelvin was a prominent symbol.” His scientific prowess was noted. In newspapers around the world he was “one of the greatest scientists and ablest men of the age.” As he was laid to rest the dean of the Abbey intoned the old words of the burial service. Such achievements characterized the astonishing transformation of the world by science and technology in the course of the 19th century. beneath a plain slab inscribed “William Thomson. Few modern scientists would agree. science solves one set of problems only to present new ones for the next generation. singularly inappropriate in this case: “Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live. yet as he grew old he grew unhappy with the developments that others. especially in the Atlantic cable and its instrumentation. Lord Kelvin. His early thinking on thermodynamics and electromagnetism was profound and influential.” “the foremost scientist of Great Britain.” and “the most distinguished British man of science. J. Of course. 1824-1907. Kelvin was interred beside Isaac Newton. It was not for .EPILOGUE 311 fly away”) and 1 Cor. working from his clues. where is thy sting? O grave. but the popular press mostly reminded readers of his contributions to electrical technology. In Kelvin’s case I am not so sure. and is full of misery. J. had pursued. but I can’t help thinking that pioneers such as Faraday and Maxwell. I have often wanted to speak back into the past. representing the summation of Kelvin’s mechanical picture of the universe. now seem impossibly antique. to show them how it all worked out.

“What a happy strenuous career his must have been.” while of his final ideas on radioactivity and “electrions. Kelvin had been irked by a dripping tap. At Netherhall. “it is less easy to speak. In a longer notice written for the Royal Society. along with his essential work in establishing scientific units for the new sciences. New discoveries and new aspects of knowledge crowding in upon him faster than he could express them to the world. so fast.” Also writing in Nature.” Kelvin had inspired Maxwell to start work on electromagnetism. Joseph Larmor described Kelvin as “a main pioneer and creator in the all-embracing science of energy.” Thompson carefully concluded. . elasticity of matter. the greatest physical generalisation of the last century. Scientific assessments of his life.” The Baltimore lectures “remain a witness to his extraordinary fertility of intellectual resource. .” but conceded that even there “his fragmentary and often hurried writings on this subject” left to others the task of rationalizing the new ideas into rigorous and whole science. P. and his niece Agnes King told of happy hours running up and down stairs to turn the water on and off while her . A slightly silly story emphasizes the point. Larmor noted. on the other hand. In the first half of his life. . S. had never been undertaken by him. that he never stopped to think. Kelvin’s brilliance was not in doubt. . but Maxwell’s “genius was as systematic as Thomson’s was desultory. Larmor’s reservations stood out more clearly still.312 Degrees Kelvin science alone that Kelvin became famous but because of the way he brought science into ordinary life. . emphasized his contributions to the understanding of energy and electromagnetism as the core of his legacy. and a great deal of valuable investigation of fluid mechanics.” Because after that his powers of original invention in science waned. .” There was the problem: Kelvin thought fast. And there was another misfortune: “One is at times almost tempted to wish that the electric cabling of the Atlantic . . Naturally. fundamental results arrived in such volume as to leave behind all chance of effective development. he set out to design a better one. in fact. and other more mundane but important works. . and he channeled his admittedly enormous energy into too many distracting enterprises. Of his later scientific activity. Thompson observed in Nature. “it would be entirely premature to evaluate [their] ultimate importance.

and so on. long after everyone else had abandoned it. writing to his wife after a visit. Kelvin was also working up his Baltimore lectures. In his last years he must have been dismayed that he would not live to see how all the confusing questions thrown up at the beginning of the new century would turn out. “Lord Kelvin is rather a clever man. seeing this. But laying aside the old snobbery that an intellectual cannot have practical talents. would he somehow have been led to change his mind about Maxwell’s theory? Of course not. the thinking goes. brought back a century later. elaborating his vortex models of atom and ether.’ and wondered at our amusement. If he had not invented the tap. and as you know he will not stop for meals or any other consideration. where is the truth in this? Kelvin was busy his entire life. he could not see the joke! . He devised a valve and took out a patent. remarked.” Delighted. Helmholtz. has nothing to do with his skills of practical invention. his niece told the story later at a dinner party for Kelvin.EPILOGUE 313 uncle designed and experimented. and “everyone laughed except himself. finding no one home. . corresponding with FitzGerald on electromagnetism. He was quite satisfied to be thought ‘rather clever. The fact that he pursued an intellectual course largely alone. The landlord. Kelvin was less of a physicist than he could have been. scientists such as Larmor tut-tutted sadly. because he dabbled in domestic engineering and other inconsequential matters. . at first thought that “Sir Wm might do better than apply his eminent sagacity to industrial undertaking” but quickly changed his mind: “I did Thomson an injustice in supposing him to be wholly immersed in technical work.” When he was inventing his tap and refining his compass. He invented a watertap. react to the modern physicists’ view of the world with amazement or horror? It is easy to imagine that quantum mechanics would have befuddled and further . Would he. left his card. he was full of speculations as to the original properties of bodies.” If family members were tickled at the thought of the great philosopher of nature being known for a piece of plumbing. Kelvin clung to his outdated view of a strictly mechanical universe because he sincerely believed it was the right line to take. In 1894 Kelvin visited his niece at rented accommodations in London and. in other words. and which turned out to be a historical dead end. some of which were very difficult to follow.

Electromagnetic fields. in our limited three-dimensional world. But I think Kelvin. but surely he would have loved particle physics. As much as he stuck to his established conceptions. elastic but abstract. according to modern physics. or lead the way to some other as yet unconceived theory. Even the vacuum. Thompson said of Kelvin’s late thinking) entirely premature to judge whether superstrings and their ramifications will serve as the foundation of a final theory of physics. Many physicists today who probe the universe at its most fundamental level of construction speak of superstrings and their offspring. accelerating tiny fragments of matter and smashing them into each other to see what smaller fragments would fly out—this is a science Kelvin could embrace. with his ability to dream up . a mile or more around. P. are portrayed now not as continuous entities. pervading space. go the way of the dinosaurs. But then I wonder. Quantum mechanics. like the vortex atom and the sponge ether. but as he and others said. I am sure. By the end of his life he had discarded his old faith in vortex atoms and acknowledged that not one of his ether models was adequate. The strange subatomic forces that keep quarks bundled up inside atomic nuclei: This is Kelvin’s physics! It’s Boscovich! It’s Aepinus Atomized! Elementary particles as constructions of tiny ingredients held together by peculiar but necessary forces—Kelvin would have convinced himself.314 Degrees Kelvin dismayed him. in its pure form. he needed a model in order to understand a theory. of microphysics that could be interpreted as mechanical systems writ small. likewise. lines and loops wiggling around in multidimensional spaces and creating for us. specifically photons. It is (as S. He did not know what would come in their place. that this was exactly the kind of thing he had in mind when he was preaching against the nihilism of the Maxwellians and their mathematically austere electric and magnetic fields. is not a void but a seething medium of virtual particles coming and going. but as the manifestation of forces transmitted by quantum particles. the appearance of point particles and continuous forces. Kelvin was capable of abandoning ideas with little regret when it was clear they would not do. or. The giant machines. might well have seemed elusive to him. since it took away forever the elementary picture of absolute cause and effect.

it was exactly what he had been trying to say.EPILOGUE 315 endlessly ingenious pictures based on elementary principles and his fondness for adding mathematical complication to explain hard empirical phenomena. after all. would after being taken aback by the dizzying scope of modern theoretical physics decide that. .


BIBLIOGRAPHY he basic biographical source for Kelvin is the two-volume work by Sylvanus P. most of which stands up when compared to information from other sources. and writing as a physicist at the beginning of the 20th century. 422. published in 1910. that he had never given it another thought. Thompson indicated that he attached no importance to it. Thompson. J. as soon as it was finished. 253) recounts an amusing tale told to him by George Forbes. as a protest. he naturally cannot judge a number of scientific issues that were unresolved at the time. The memoirs by Kelvin’s nieces Elizabeth Thomson King and Agnes T 317 . who among other things reported the Baltimore lectures for Nature: “At the British Association at York [in 1881]. not at all critical but is filled with detail. Thompson covered the blackboard with a mathematical calculation which did not commend itself to Lord Kelvin. Concerning this.” Thompson’s life of Kelvin is. R. silently took a duster and wiped it all out! Forbes many years afterwards reminded Thompson of the incident and said he thought it very generous of him to have written so laudatory a biography of Lord Kelvin. Strutt (p. at any rate. note to p. Thompson emphasizes Kelvin’s science rather than his technological work. The latter.

with the result that the academic . Kelvin’s sister. I bought it (on the Internet) from a used-book store in Sydney. Smith and Wise deconstruct Kelvin’s science in a painstaking and mostly convincing way. turning them into anonymous actors responding helplessly to social forces.318 Degrees Kelvin Gardner King overlap a good deal with each other and with Thompson but add interesting perspectives on Kelvin’s youth and daily life. Regardless of all that. Of course. The hardest part of researching this book was untangling the origins of thermodynamics. my copy of her book is dedicated by George King. This is a thorough but. to Captain John Gibb “in recollection of a delightful voyage in R. No doubt scientists are creatures of their times. along with her own thoughts and memories. They are enamored of a model of science couched in the terminology of economics. but in thermodynamics this journey was unusually tortuous. (Thompson evidently obtained most of his account of Kelvin’s childhood and family background from the nieces. unless they claim a special exemption. but everything they find they fit into a sociopolitical straitjacket. A discovery or idea has value in the scientific community according to the extent to which other scientists buy it. excessively ideological work. Scientific progress in any area tends to be a steady refinement of qualitative ideas into analytical laws. How clever! This sociological approach tends to strip individual scientists of originality or idiosyncrasy or psychology. presumably the brother of Elizabeth T. By generating consistently saleable products.” Captain Gibb. A winning theory outsells competing ideas and corners its market sector. a scientist can boost his intellectual credit rating. Australia. 28 Augt to 19 Sept 1911. Kelvin is then an accomplished scientific capitalist as well as an old-fashioned money-making one. never read it. Makura [I think].. but then so are historians of science. By remarkable coincidence. and when it arrived I found its pages entirely uncut. sad to report. I have tried to tell Kelvin’s story as the saga of a man equipped with a particular set of talents and a particular cast of mind. A more recent scholarly account of Kelvin is the book by Crosbie Smith and M. Sydney to Vancouver. Norton Wise. to me anyway. Or something of the sort.M.S.) Elizabeth’s book is mainly her edited account of the recollections of her mother Elizabeth. and Agnes G. Where these things come from I don’t pretend to know.

what they thought they were saying. but his detailed dissection of the many papers contributing to the foundation of thermodynamics is nonetheless illuminating. R. 2 vols. The New Amphion: Being the Book of the Edinburgh University Union Fancy Fair. 15th. . from scanning the Reports of the British Association.BIBLIOGRAPHY 319 literature today contains many discrepant opinions on what the several pioneers of the subject said. Glasgow: MacLehose. Glasgow: Maclehose and Macdougall. and Greenland: Miscellaneous Reports. Edison: Inventing the Century. 1924. Speeches. 2001. 1884. Truesdell is bombastic. The Practical Applications of Electricity: A Series of Lectures Delivered at the Institution of Civil Engineers. Iceland. Kelvin Centenary: Oration and Addresses Commemorative. 1886. The Life of Lord Fisher of Kilverstone. and Rankine were unable to see clearly all the things that are so apparent to him. the Philosophical Magazine. I found no single account that provided a thorough and measured estimation of the whole subject. Ireland: Irish University Press. 1971. and Papers on the Practicability of the Proposed North Atlantic Telegraph: The Results of the Surveying Expedition of 1859. The Tragicomical History of Thermodynamics. 1896. L. and Nature. and sesquipedalian. Clausius. His judgments as a result are idiosyncratic and questionable. 1896. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 1874. Joule. and how important their contributions were. Shannon. H. published posthumously and without explicit identification of the author.) Babbage. Bacon. (These are Margaret Thomson’s poems. London: P. Reprint of the original 1830 edition. He writes in a constant state of exasperated wonderment that men such as Carnot. 16th and 17th June. He takes the line that no law is a good law until it has been given rigorous mathematical expression and for this reason tends to underestimate the value and difficulty of coming up with new physical concepts. Reflections on the Decline of Science in England and on Some of Its Causes. Humphries. Kelvin. Of particular note is Clifford Truesdell’s exceedingly strange book. N. Edinburgh: T. London: Edw. Stanford. The North Atlantic Telegraph via the Faröe Isles. & A. Constable. 1861. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. T. Celebration of Jubilee of Lord Kelvin. London: Institution of Civil Engineers. too many and too minor to merit individual reference. In addition to the works cited here. and a terrible scold to boot. Baldwin. C. judgmental. 1929. I gleaned numerous odds and ends of information. Verses by M.

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Chicago: University of Chicago Press. London: Chapman and Hall. ed. C. A. 1980. Inventor and Entrepreneur: Recollections of Werner von Siemens. C. 1998. William Thomson.BIBLIOGRAPHY 323 Rowlinson. London: Macmillan. College Life at Cambridge in the Days of Stokes. Thompson. (Lord Kelvin). Thomson. Sharlin. Oliver Heaviside. London: Blackie. (Reprint with additional material of the 1924 edition. The Royal Society and the Founding of the BAAS. 1966. Isis 54:461-474. 1989. J. 1822-1854. New York/ Heidelberg/Berlin: Springer. Whittaker. London: Macmillan. 1971. J. 3rd ed. 1891. Lord Kelvin: The Dynamic Victorian. (I. Tait. (First three volumes were edited by Thomson. ———. C. Silliman. P. von. Schuster. E. and M. Lord Kelvin: His Way of Teaching. Lord Kelvin. Russell.A. ed. J. Searle. 1963. R. 1889-1894. P. Lectures on Some Recent Advances in Physical Science (with a special lecture on force). ———. T. 1961. Mathematical and Physical Papers. ———. 3 vols. Notes and Records of the Royal Society 26:189204. 1872. W. R. 1908. 2 vols. Historical Studies of the Physical Sciences 7:405-436. (Single-volume reprint of two volumes originally published 1951 and 1953. 1866. I. (J. A. D. 1965. The Theory of Glaciers. London: Macmillan.) Sviedrys. 1979. Smith. London: Peter Peregrinus for the Institution of Electrical Engineers. P. E. Popular Lectures and Addresses. 1866. Life of John William Strutt.: C. 6:101-106. S. S. Third Baron Rayleigh. Recollections and Reflections. Notes and Records of the Royal Society 16:221-233. W. Russell. London: J. Energy and Empire. Thomson. Watson.M. Glasgow: John Smith and Son. F. G. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. last three by J. Norton Wise. R. London: Macmillan. Publishing. Cayley. Michael Faraday. New York: Dover. William Thomson: Smoke Rings and 19th Century Atomism. 1968. 1885. W. S. 1910. W. Wilson. Scripta Mathematica. Adams. 1939. Tunbridge. Life of Lord Kelvin. A. The Tragicomical History of Thermodynamics. A History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity. London: Macmillan. 1989. Larmor.) ———. C.) Williams. N. G.). Lord Kelvin: His Influence on Electrical Measurements. 1987. Strutt. 1936. Virtue & Co. The Atlantic Telegraph. The Rise of Physics Laboratories in Britain. and Kelvin. Cambridge University Press. J. The Rise and Extension of Submarine Telegraphy. London: Macmillan. Siemens. 1976. On the Value of an Edinburgh Degree.K. Biographical Fragments. 1992. Edinburgh: Maclachlan and Stewart.). U. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. St. London: Lund Humphries. Howard. Albans. Smith. Catt. Reprint of Papers on Electrostatics and Magnetism. ———. 1932. The Science of Energy. Truesdell. H. . H. 1910. 6 vols. State College: Pennsylvania State University Press. London: Day & Son. 1882-1911. P. the Man. L.

U. 1987. 2 vols. Yavetz. . Kelvin and Stokes: A Comparative Study in Victorian Physics.K.: Adam Hilger. 1990. 1872-1889. ———. The Correspondence Between Sir George Gabriel Stokes and Sir William Thomson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. I. Bristol. 1995. B. D. Basel/ Boston/Berlin: Birkhäuser. Baron Kelvin of Largs.324 Degrees Kelvin Wilson. From Obscurity to Enigma: The Work of Oliver Heaviside.

with the exception of the correspondence between Kelvin and Stokes.. where reference is to Wilson (1990). Thompson (1910) MPP I-VI: Mathematical and Physical Papers. and JT is his father. Thomson (1889-1894) E&M: Papers on Electrostatics and Magnetism.Notes uotations are not referenced here if their origin is clear from the text. In these references WT is William Thomson. King (1910) 325 Q . King (1925) ETK: Lord Kelvin’s Early Home. Thomson (1872) AGK: Kelvin the Man. Abbreviations SPT I and II: Life of Kelvin. extracts from Kelvin’s scientific papers can be found by consulting his collected works. Siblings are referred to by their first names only. for brevity. Likewise. James Thomson. Thomson (1882-1911) PLA I-III: Popular Lectures and Addresses. In particular. Correspondence indicated as B128. comes from the Kelvin collection at Cambridge University Library (CUL). and remarks by scientists at British Association meetings are taken from the singlevolume (but eccentrically paginated) BA Reports for that year. extracts from newspapers are not cited here if the source and date are identified in the text. etc.

“I wish I could have made it more clear . “It was certainly a great honour . October 28. April 23. p. .: Washington Post. 1841. . . “ . 15. . .”: WT to Elizabeth.”: This and subsequent remarks by Rhees are from Rochester (N. “Since he has left .326 Notes INTRODUCTION p.”: Preliminary Discourse. p. “On the 1st of May . 12. . ETK 196. November 21.Y. WT to JT. the reception at Columbia University. p. 2. 1. . . In Washington D. .”: SPT I 14.”: from Notebook 7 at CUL. “delightful young man”: ETK 162. p. . p. 13. 1897. n.d. Fourier (1955). “I had no idea .”: T185. 9. .”: WT to Elizabeth. 3. 1 CAMBRIDGE p.”: T180. . May 2. we accordingly determined to wait . 68(1903):623-624. . 14. . p. . . p. 1902. . 14. and later interview extracts are from the New York Times. . “broke forth such a cheer . . PLA I includes the text of the lecture but not the remarks. . . 12. eminent electrician”: Toronto Globe. . p. .. “Primary causes are unknown to us . 1902. October 23. 1841. .d.C. “The mathematics is very difficult . . 16. p. ETK 201. “I have got no time to be dull . 2. April 24. n. p. 17. and Washington Star. .. p. . . 1902. 17. p. “ . .”: Lord Kelvin and his first teacher in natural philosophy. 12.”: from the Q&A following Kelvin’s lecture “Electrical Units of Measurement.” and “in the first half of the month of May .”: This and following remarks to Anna are from B128. August 19.” in Practical Applications of Electricity (1884). . April 20. “asked your age . p. JT to WT.) Democrat and Chronicle. 1841. “not . Nature. in robust health”: This. .

March 27. . p. December 6. . 1841. . 1841. JT to WT. SPT I 32. . . 20.”: T197.”: T197.”: Knight (1896) 20. October 28. p. April 9. “farther. p. . . . p. . and as good as new”: T196. . WT to JT. p. MPP I. 1841.”: K4. p. “Never forget to take every care . 1841. . JT to WT. . p.” and “I always row by myself . . . p. . p. 20. “As to the insertion of the paper . The paper appeared . February 21. p. “I hope [the boat] is to your liking . . “Healthful and innocent exercise . “Good-hearted . 1842. .”: T186. Kelland to JT. March 8. .”: T180. . 1841. p. . p. 1842. “Papa! Fourier is right. 1842. . 22. p. p. . and Kelland is wrong!”: ETK 183. JT to WT. “You know my views . JT to WT. 1841. 1842. . “the fine old stock of Scottish Covenanters”: AGK 3. 23. . 18. “so favourably and so kindly”: T203. 1842. March 6. . “Recollect my maxim . 24. “sole object is to establish what is true . “the flippant manner . . 23. p. October 30. December 6. 24. . 20. JT to WT. 18. . 20.”: G182. . 19. 23.”: T234. 1841. March 6. p. WT to JT.PAGES 1-24 327 p. 23.”: SPT I 17. 1843. “built of oak. JT to Kelland. February 21. 22.”: T186. “shocked to be told . Gregory to JT. 1841. . 1841. WT to JT. 22.”: K6. p. JT to WT.”: T496. SPT I 29. JT to WT. March 1. March 4. “an idle and extravagant set”: T181. p.”: K5. 23. . SPT I 53. p. “With regard to wine parties . . “I am very much pleased . . May 1841: On Fourier’s Expansions of Functions in Trigonometric Series.”: T187. February 19. 22. Kelland to JT. John to WT. “You are quite right in anticipating . 22. 24. December 12. that it will not lead .

coached 17 Senior Wranglers: Rothblatt (1981) 202. . p. 28. “both clever. 30. reported by SPT I 25. 32. p. “Fourier made Thomson”: Knott (1911) 191. . May 6. . Hopkins . “dingy old place”: Knight (1896) 18. 29. . 28.”: ETK 27. 29. 1842.”: T206. 32. “P’itty b’ue eyes . . 37. . WT to JT. . “to relieve my head from the seediness .”: ETK 87. p. . . 36. 1843. .”: T213. . . p. good talkers and sketchers”: Knight (1896) 19. “College Tutors and Lecturers take but small part . 26. p. p. 1843.” and following extract: ETK 71. . 1842. . Hopkins charged £72 per student: Rothblatt (1981) 68n.328 Notes p. April 1842.”: NB29.”: recollection by Canon Grenside. G. p. . “There was something in the very disamenities . p. p. . p. “at an appointed time . p. 28. quoted by Gray (1908) 11. . entry for February 13. 27. 29. p. . . WT to JT. . p.”: Fleming (1934) 57. 30. 200. I can read with much greater vigour . . . p.”: ETK 87. . April 14. . 33. . “both father and mother to us . WT to JT. William noted on February 15: These and subsequent extracts are from NB29. “frightened to see my beautiful father . 27. 30.”: T209. “I am sure you will perfectly approve . . p. papa. 29.”: Tait (1866). “ . March 31. Ramsay. p. p. p. p.”: G. . reported by AGK 11. . “A most engaging boy . 30. “Do. 34. 36. “William was a great pet with him . p. One of William’s fellow undergraduates: Canon Grenside. “I have been reading moderately . . let me answer!”: ETK 101. recorded his weight: CUL notebook NB29.

“ . “Fischer does not get on quite so well . 41.”: T239. WT to JT. p. . WT to Aunt Gall. 1844. .”: T230. . . .”: C135. WT to JT. . JT to WT. 47. “containing all your reasons .”: T553. November 30. June 3. . March 12. May 5. . 1844.”: H122. “I am practising now everyday .”: T228. he has given me entire satisfaction . 41. . 46.PAGES 26-47 329 p. p. . .”: T255. “Dr. 37. December 11. Robert to WT. . August 1843. . Hopkins to JT. 1844. . . p. p. Cookson to JT. . 40. December 29. 1843. .”: T243. . 1843. . 1843. p. 46. August 7. “ . I ought to mention . 1844. May 4. “What mortal in the world . WT to Anna. 40. Dr Meikleham has a second attack . . p. “seems to be getting on very well . . “The prospect is of course rather terrible . 1843. “Your lodgings are surely unnecessarily fine . . June 21. . p.”: T250.”: T278. p. May 23. “better than winning in an examination. p. WT to JT. . December 7. 1844. April 1843.”: T265. JT to WT. . . October 1843.”: Anna to WT. . 1844. 43. JT to WT. 44. therefore . p. 41. “This is a very pleasant place .”: AGK 9.”: G11. p. 44. . p. . p. 40. . 1844. . 1844. 1843.”: From the 1824 translation of Wilhelm Meister by Thomas Carlyle. “ . . 47. Meikleham has had another attack . JT to WT. “I do not feel at all confident . 1843. “I felt . .”: T246. I have been much gratified . . p. p. .”: T236. 47. p. “Your son is going on extremely well . WT to JT. 43. . . “I hope most intensely . 44. . . p. . 43. . April 4. SPT I 63.”: B204. 43. .”: T266. “I think you might write a little oftener . JT to WT. . December 19. “What you have to do. p. . June 13. JT to WT. WT to JT. .

49. . . 48. 1845. Cookson to JT.”: H124. . . . January 5. Hopkins to JT. 1845. 1845. . p. .”: K74. Five Years in an English University (New York: Putnam). .”: T288.”: C138. . 1845. March 6. WT to JT. . . Cookson to JT.”: C140.”: extracts from Charles A. JT to WT. “Hopkins’s letter has done you great good . p. p. with vigour and cheerfulness . Bristed (1852). . . . . “I must confess . January 19. . p. . January 1. WT to JT. January 18. WT to JT. . The exam took place at Stokes’s house: Larmor (1907) 11. 48. 50. Hopkins to JT. “You see I was right . however . “For the project we have . “I have been getting on very well .”: T286. . WT to JT. . . January 14. January 18. JT to WT. 1844. WT to JT. “greatly changed . 52.”: T253.”: T257. . . p. “A Cambridge education did not always give . p. 51. “I think that he cannot fail . p. p. “the Johnians are talking confidently .”: T271.330 Notes p. January 24. . JT to WT. from Watson (1939).”: T287. 51. p. 51. 48. . p. 49. 1844.”: T281. 49. “This present year. p. . 50. 1845. William dashed off a brief note: T279. . January 17. . January 6. p. 1845. p. January 22. p. WT to JT. 50. 1844. . “three years of Cambridge drilling . 1845. . 52. . September 22. “I hope by this time . 1845.”: T262. 1845. . . May 13. 49. January 5. 1845. 48. p. Elizabeth to WT.”: H123. 1844. April 22.”: T289. p. “The place you have got . . 48. “ . “I have seen your son . “ . 1845. . 49. 1845. JT to WT. p. WT to JT. your son’s not being senior wrangler . . January 22.”: T290. .

58. 1846. WT to JT.PAGES 48-61 331 p. . . WT to JT. March 30. . “I am afraid I should have to give up . p. 1846. “as many pupils as I would wish”: T326.”: T342. February 12. 58. 1845. p. “very much contrary to my expectations”: T314. . . . . . 54. 59. . August 17. 59. 1845. 61. JT to WT. p. “said not to bring down your instructions . p. 1846. 1845. JT to WT. 60. 1(1825):270-271. “important matters in consideration at present”: T317. . May 10. October 10. . p. May 2. . May 17. July 1.”: T334. November 1.”: Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Sciences. WT to JT. the Alma Mater of my scientific youth . 1845. 1845. .”: T336. WT to JT. Ellis. . February 11. said to be the words of R. . . is much pleased . “forward so far at so early an age!”: T315. JT to WT. p. “he asked me to write a short paper . p. . p. “double your efforts to procure testimonials . L. 55. 60.”: T329. if there is such an idea . “ . . “The idea. 1845. “took me quite by surprise . 59. “Dr W Thomson [the medical man] and Dr Nichol . 1845.”: T305. JT to WT. p. p.”: T303. 1846. p. . April 8. JT to WT. 59. 1846. p. WT to JT. “timidity and want of effective locution”: T341. . “Could you ‘get at them’? .”: Belfast Magazine and Literary Journal. p. . May 11. May 16. “ . 58. 1846.T. WT to JT. . 58. p. “Dr W. 121(1895):582 (my translation). . 61. 60. May 7.”: E62A.”: T333. . 1846. 57.”: T296. “despotic Whewell”: T319. however . 56. p. JT to WT. about fit to mend his pens”: SPT I 98. JT to WT. p. WT to JT. 58. . 1845. “Since the days of Newton. June 28. . Ellis to JT. p. .

“every now and then .”: T357. . “Caino?”: On the dissipation of energy. 70. 62. 1846. 70.”: Liouville. . p. . “William does not look in the slightest degree elated.332 Notes p. “Cookson &c are right in their views . 62. ETK 232. . 61. 63. p. “I believe M. ETK 232. 1844. William Thomson . 1846. “I have a good many warnings . James to WT. p. sometimes. Robert (relaying Anna’s words) to WT. . . . July 8. James to WT. . “a countenance more expressive of delight . p. . 1846. . p. “The preliminary part .”: David King to Elizabeth. . p. 61. June 29. 63.”: Königsberger (1906) 222. 70. . “hoped I do not intend . 71. ETK 233.”: T382. September 14. . 71. 63. “I wish my apprenticeship was as nearly done . 66. . 1846.” and other subsequent remarks from Carnot’s Réflexions: Mendoza (1960). September 1846. “It was also. . . JT to WT. . 61. . 70. December 23.”: Ewing (1933) 171. also SPT I 133. . James to WT. 2 CONUNDRUMS p. p. “Of the sons I liked James . “a level-headed fellow . p. difficult . JT to WT.”: T355. . February 22. . p. “He is already blessed . PA35 (my translation). 1846.”: T558. “the production of motive power .”: T404. . “get a beard fast . p. p. . September 12. . 63. . PLA II. 1845. . . June 21. p.”: Knight (1896) 20. p. June 13. p. . . p. . 1846. .”: T415.”: T349. 1842. WT to JT. 67.”: Cookson’s testimonial in CUL item PA34.”: David King to Elizabeth.”: Elizabeth to Agnes Gall. “I am afraid you are resting too quietly .

p. “blister over my heart . . . . 1847. 1847. .”: Address delivered on the unveiling of Joule’s statue in Manchester. 77. 1893. . p. . “I certainly think [Joule] has fallen into blunders . . “Your most grave & sober counsel . “had the courage to say . Frederick Fuller to WT. “really a most painful and distressing thing”: T425. PLA II. 78.”: Bottomley (1882). “Mind you don’t get married . November 14. “I enclose Joule’s papers . . 77. WT to James. . . Fuller to WT. . p. July 1. “I was asked to go to balls . . 76.”: T433. . p. “professed utter scorn”: ETK 141. p. 1846. p. p. 75. . . Fischer to WT. September 5. October 26. . May 30. “I could imagine . 77. . December 7. .”: T367. . “regular drudgery”: T505. 77.”: Jemima Blackburn’s recollection in Fairley (1988) 33. 1847. 1847. . p. James to WT. 78. 72. “felt strongly impelled at first .”: Schuster (1932) 201. . “Joule is I am sure wrong . . p. 1844. . p.”: F95. .”: T373. “He burst out rather faintly . “Before leaving the St Martin road . “Whom should I meet walking up but Joule . James to WT. .”: T297. “I must say I am not at all satisfied .”: T429.”: Agnes Gall to Elizabeth. WT to JT. p. . 77. 73. . p. 75. ETK 241. 1845. .”: F295. p.PAGES 61-78 333 p. 77. 78. . 1846. January 30. 1849.”: WT quoted in Bottomley (1882). 1847. ETK 243.”: WT to David King. “Elizabeth! Elizabeth Thomson! . 74. . p. p. 75. James to WT. 72. July 12. 1847. “There is a tremendous report . September 14. .”: F297. . 75. 1849. Dykes to WT. p. 75. John to WT.”: Cardwell (1989) 6. p. June 1847. January 12. p. February 15. . July 24. “I gained ideas .”: D124. May 10. . . p. WT to JT. 76.

. 87. May 9. 87.”: Williams (1965) 99. E&M. “ . p. . William bought stock: T366. 1843. James (1996). Stokes to WT. p. also quoted in SPT I 203. . . p.”: S36. 91. June 20. 86. 81. . February 24. was never his forte”: Wilson (1910). “Now. . “I do not think I could work in company . entry for March 16. p. 92. p. 1847. . p. June 11. p.”: S35. 86. July 6. . SPT I 251. 89. also SPT I 119. 92. WT to Stokes. p. . . WT to JT. “inoculated with Faraday fire”: SPT I 19. p. Mr.”: On the Mathematical Theory of Electricity in Equilibrium. quoting directly from the 1870 biography of Faraday by Bence-Jones. p. . Robert to WT. Going to Hopkins’ rooms: SPT I 113. . T563. WT to JT. WT to Stokes. . February 20. 1846.”: WT to Faraday. . “once or twice or three times . “When I consider thy heavens . “Ye’ll no lach when ye’re in hell!”: ETK 120. Robert to WT. p. . p. got (abused)2”: CUL notebook NB 29. “straightforward course is. 1845. 1845. . 90. . . 80. February 23.”: Murray (1924). p. p. . p. Thomson soared to heights . . . p. . “Explanation . 1846. 1847. 1845. 80.”: Williams (1965) 105. . ETK 233. Macintosh . “merely as actual truths . . 83. “an enthusiastic and inspiring teacher .”: Murray (1924). p. p. 91. 84. “In all kinds of knowledge . . 1847. 79. . . “According to his own account . . “Ah! Voilà mon affaire! ”: T298.”: Russell (1938) 35. 89. p. .334 Notes p. . “the lecturer was greatly downhearted at its conclusion”: SPT I 191. 91.”: from Psalm 20. p. to decline . . “What I have written is merely a sketch . 92. 79.”: Elizabeth to David King.”: S39. 91. starting on £20 a year: T560. 1845. . November 3. . “in wh Faraday and Daniell . “no case can prove the noxiousness . February 12. p.”: Williams (1965) 7. “My education was of the most ordinary description . 92.

“I write to remind you . 1852. 94. . “I suppose it is out of the question . SPT I 232. 1852.”: Margaret Crum to Elizabeth. “in a wretched state . . p. SPT I 234. 95. p.”: F198. . 98. September 19. Kremer (1990) (my translation). .”: Clausius (1850). . p.”: WT to Elizabeth. ch. “a rather pretty woman .”: Fairley (1988) 43. December 7. 1852. 101.”: letter 39. p. February 18. .” and further remarks about his lab at Glasgow: From the Bangor Laboratories. . . 96. 1855. 92. “They have sung to thee. . 101. p. “What I liked best . . “she looks much better .”: letter 39. in Mendoza (1960). 97. p. . . . p. WT to Forbes. p. .d. see Truesdell (1980). without the expenditure of mechanical effect”: F199. . Kremer (1990). 94. “As you have taken so much trouble . O grave !”: all poetical selections are from Verses by MT (1874). April 20. . “I think will please you . p. p. p. . Forbes to WT. . . SPT I 305.. .”: F99. . . Thomson . 96. n. “ . p. 1850. “had none of the air or manner of a superior”: Murray (1924). p. . p. “The day is somewhat dark and cold . .”: WT to Elizabeth. . 1. PLA II. August 7. August 1854. “We have one interest in common . the Frenchman Guillaume Amontons: For the early history of these temperature-scale calibrations. 1848.”: S96. WT to Stokes. 95. “sometime. SPT I 233. . 104: “I believe we should not be daunted . 102. probably early in September . 96. Forbes to WT. p.”: F194. . “will not answer when questioned . . . 99. . p.”: Wilson (1910). Fischer to WT.”: WT to Elizabeth. July 31. p. 96. . . November 27. “give my best regards to . 97. 94. “surgical nursing”: SPT I 238. p. 95. 1848. 1848.PAGES 79-104 335 p. July 13. .

p. 3 CABLE p. Electricity. and Ponderable Matter. “devoting myself as much as possible . . . . “expressed their great astonishment . Smith (1891) 5. . “oceanic and subterranean inland electric telegraphs”: Brett (1858) includes a facsimile of the original telegraph. 114. 115. August 24. .”: Bright (1898). . 1855. . 120. December 1. in Mendoza (1960). WT to Stokes. p.”: Brett (1858) x. September 22. . ch. 114. . “not ten minutes after . . “wherever motive power is destroyed .”: T445. 115. . 115. “the jest or scheme of yesterday . . MPP III. p. “a man in London might sign a bill . p. . p. one of the leading mathematical physicists in Europe . “from one continent to another”: Brett (1858) x. 122. p. . 113. . p.”: Spectator.”: S115. . 1853. March 17. p. “she suffers much .”: Siemens (1966) 82. 32(1848):165-167. p.”: letter 39. . 122.”: S119. “From Edinburgh I traveled for a couple of hours .”: Carnot’s later notes. “the remedy for the anticipated difficulty . “some few. p. WT to Stokes. Kremer (1990) (my translation). 116. “the simplicity of Morse’s apparatus . “What a mad scheme!”: W. . 1854. more or less incoherent. WT to James. .”: Brett (1858) xiii. August 21. 119. The problem finally came to Thomson’s attention: WT recounts the story in Ether. 115. . . “ . letters . . 122. 1854. . .”: London Times. Faraday published his analysis: Philosophical Magazine. 123.”: letter 34. 112. p. . . p. October 28. 1850. Faraday . p. 105. p. 115. quoted by Brett (1858) 34. 7(1854):297-208. 112. . sent a short note: Philosophical Magazine. 1. . Kremer (1990). 1850. . p.336 Notes p. p.

1858. . 127. 133. to Analytical and Synthetical Attempts to Ascertain the Cause of the Differences of Electrical Conductivity Discovered in Wires of Nearly Pure Copper. 124. . . “It is the harbinger of an age .”: Whitehouse’s contribution in BA Reports. “depends on the nature of the electric operation . p.) p.”: Carter (1968) 147. 1858. August 5. p. . p. . “The electrical signals sent and received . October 4.”: New York Post. “in a fearful state of excitement . 133. “suggested the plan . “the frantic fooleries of the Americans . p.”: New York Post. “was surprised to find differences . MPP II. the Queen’s message . . “It was not until practical testing .”: On Electric Conductivity of Commercial Copper of Various Kinds. WT to Stokes. The Electrician. . 1854. p. 132. . 1856. Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse: A few details about him are in a short obituary notice. 136. quoted in SPT I 360-364. “experienced mariners gazed in apprehension . “True.PAGES 105-138 337 p. “coiled in a large tank .”: From an eyewitness account in the Sydney Morning Herald. November 8. 131. . p. . p. September 2. also MPP III. 134. . “has been able to show most convincingly . . 138. a hair plucked from his dog: AGK 55. . “distinctness of the utterance”: S116. . . p. 1883. p. “like every theory . 1858. p. 1858. 125. . . 138.”: New York Herald. 123. .”: Russell (1866) 22. 138. 136. 125.”: T442. “Glorious Recognition . 1856. . p. September 2. 1856. 24(1890):319. January 13. August 17. 1855 (incorrectly dated 1854). . p. .”: Athenaeum. 126. MPP III. August 30. p. . p. October 30. 1856. 126.”: Athenaeum. . . p.”: Athenaeum.”: footnote added June 27. WT to James. . . .”: New York Post. . . (Despite the title WT never did satisfactorily ascertain the cause.

139. p. p. but his account is only partly corroborated by others.”: L9. p. . . 156. 141. . Mascart (Paris: P. September 25. 5. September 21. . 140. . . . “I have had the opportunity . p.”: Siemens (1966) 119. “I object to Galvad . . . “I must not hide from you . WT to Stokes.”: C91. “Cyrus Field. p. MPP V. 1858. p. 153. and remediable”: New York Post.”: On the Early History of Submarine Cable Enterprise. p. . 150. 1858. 150. thought about proposing Whitehouse: see S163. p. “ .” and following extracts: Memoir of Fleeming Jenkin. p. . . . p. 5. 153. 147. 141. . 156. ch. 1858. . 142. “the interior of the jar lit up . p. “near the shore. 139. . 1857. “the gentlemen who constitute the Committee . “I should like much to know . 145. ch. June 29. . M. 1883. . p. SPT I 378. October 22.338 Notes p. . p. 151. “Instead of telegraphic work . . 4. Debate over the resistance standard came to a stalemate: Account is from Tunbridge (1992). 151. . an aged and severe philosopher . . .”: quoted in Lynch (1985).”: SPT I 390. the letter is at Glasgow University. . p. letter to him from Annie Jenkin. ch. May 3. p. .” and following extract: Ewing (1933) 172. .”: Bright (1898) 52. November 7. . at least in some accounts: SPT I 369. from the other side of the Atlantic . Colvin and Ewing (1887). who takes it from La Vie et les oeuvres de E. “At the least sign of unrest .”: WT to Joule. 1910):32-39. p. “The foundation of a real and lasting success .”: A111. Clark to WT. 1859. Janet. also SPT I 418. . Lampson to WT. Field to WT. 140. “I was not mathematical enough . 141. “With the perseverance characteristic of the English .”: Tunbridge (1992). .”: Feldenkirchen (1994) 35. C. Names for the units: Tunbridge (1992). p.

. . .”: WT to Field. Forde and C. “A line of two thousand miles .PAGES 139-168 339 p. . 165. p. 1861-1862 session (London: Wm Clowes and Sons. 4 CONTROVERSIES p. 1863). p. . . 1866. 163. 161.”: On the Early History of Submarine Cable Enterprise. “I will never forget this hour . . “in no other branch of engineering . January 1.”: Presidential Address to the Society of Telegraph Engineers. MPP II. . “steady as a Thames steamer”: Russell (1866) 61. . “There is your ship”: Rolt (1989) 396n. BOD 247931 e. 159. .”: WT’s remark is from a discussion following presentations by H. I have been unable to find where this was originally published. . . 1874. “undoubtedly meteoric”: On the Mechanical Energies of the Solar System. “I am very pleased to learn . 160. . . “a submarine telegraph cable would be designed .) Democrat and Chronicle. “What we had taken for assassination . the appearance of a dead forest . p. . C. MPP V. January 14. p. . 157. Oxford.”: The North Atlantic Telegraph (1861). April 28. Proceedings of the Institute of Civil Engineers. . . in Cyrus Field collection at the Library of Congress.Y.22.”: Cornhill Magazine. . 159. “was ordered by his board . from a collection of pamphlets bound together at the Bodleian Library.”: From a magazine article A summer trip across the Atlantic: A reminiscence ‘by one who helped to lay the cable’ above the nom de plume (well. p. “ . September 1865. Siemens on the Malta and Alexandria Telegraph Submarine Telegraph Cable. 1902. . PLA II. “I remember well a night . . . 161.”: Gooch (1972) 100. 158. . “sad and dreadful discouragement . 168. MPP III. . 158. p. 161. I presume!) Henry Plantagenet Dynamometer. “For eighteen years it has pressed on my mind . p. . p. 161. p.”: Russell (1866) 75. W. p. 160. p. p.”: WT interviewed in Rochester (N.”: On the Secular Cooling of the Earth.

Darwin to St. June 1867. 177. p. North British Review. 181. 1848. 174. . 1851. p. BA Reports (1896). 25 (1869):xxxviii-liii. “guess at the half . p. Mivart. . . 170. . PLA II.”: J77. . .”: Eve and Creasey (1945) 55. p. 406439.”: Of Geological Dynamics. p. . 175. 171. R. B. Joule to WT. . 178. 178. . . Wallace. 175. “The rotation of the earth may be diminishing . 277-318.”: F. . “We cannot give more scope . .”: On Geological Time.”: Barrie (1889). “so many geologists are contented . 177. . December 9. Joule to WT. . Darwin thought his views “monstrous”: Burchfield (1990) 110. . . “I am not stubborn . Joule to WT. MPP V. p.”: Sharlin (1979). “A great reform in geological speculation . Jenkin (although anonymously published) in North British Review. both quoted by E. . p.”: Huxley. 178. p.”: J64. ”: Darwin to A. 1849. . 180.”: Eve and Creasey (1945) 10. Poulton. “I have not pursued the controversy further . “a German of the name of Mayer . 173. ch. “I have not the slightest wish . 179.” and “then comes Sir W. Thomson accosted the geologist Andrew Ramsay: anecdote and remarks from Age of Earth as an Abode Fitted for Life. p. 174. “I suffer in a righteous cause . 172. p.340 Notes p. p. July 1869. 11. . March 17. . April 14. PLA II. 179. Thomson . . Beautiful Round! Superbly played: Knott (1911) 55. . .”: J66. p. p. 1869. . March 8. . “The small twinkling eyes . G. “Thomson completely backed out . . . . p. July 12. 1871. p. . The remarks are from Tait’s notebook. a lengthy review: Tait. “Thomson’s views . 172. p. shown to Sharlin by Tait’s granddaughter. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London. “most absolutely honest man . . . p.”: Eve and Creasey (1945) 11.”: Tait (1885).

181. “You quite take away my breath . 25(1862):368378.”: S201. 1868. from C. . comparitively . 189. SPT I 527. SPT I 26. September 28. p. 190. . . p. . September 21.”: E10. 186. 1868. 192. November 21. “I have commenced trying . July 24. H.”: WT to Jessie Crum. “It is the Lalla Rookh . 186. p.”: Eve and Creasey (1945) 71. Good Words. Philosophical Magazine. . 193.”: Thomson.”: Eve and Creasey (1945) 94. 25(1862):263. . p.”: Joule. p. “At Malta. . and Women of Italy”: Tait. Philosophical Magazine. p. “Full of impatience and excitement . September 1862. ch.PAGES 170-194 341 p. not included in the collected papers. 187. . “to give to Mayer .”: Tyndall. the Mirror is a thing of the past . 1870. 182. . 1870.”: T480. .” and “What you have the hardihood to affirm . Portelli in Malta. . . “Water Babies. . . . p. 194. then. . the first incontrovertible .” and “I am sorry to say however . abrupt and dogmatic . “Allow me to say . 1872. 1870. 193. p. p. . . 1872. July 3.”: Knott (1911) 32. . p. . 183. 192. “The signals are. . . WT to James. Philosophical Magazine. 182. 1873.” and other extracts: Energy. from R. .”: WT to Helmholtz. 188. p. 24(1862):57. “We were certainly amazed . . .”: WT to Elizabeth.”: Tyndall. 191. p. 24(1862):121. . “the days of signalling by the ‘spot of light’ . “peremptory. 25(1862):429. . Philosophical Magazine. July 21. p. . SPT I 577. “my wife has been feeling much better . . . “were so discordant . . p. 186. Reynell in Bombay. September 20. . . 9. Philosophical Magazine. Smith to WT. . p. September 12. “astonished at the multitude of .”: Items E2A at CUL: from George Stacey at Aden. . Sunken Rocks. statement of a true conservation law: see Truesdell (1980). are we indebted . “To whom. p. . .



p. 195, As long ago as 1845: T324, JT to WT, October 21, 1845. p. 196, “the great advantages I have here . . .”: WT to Cookson, December 1, 1870, SPT I 563. p. 197, “I am very glad Maxwell is standing . . .”: S273, WT to Stokes, March 3, 1871. p. 198, “The lady was neither pretty, nor healthy, nor agreeable . . .”: Fairley (1988) 107. p. 198, “ . . . terrible wife”: Whittaker (1989) vol. 1, 246n. p. 198, “James, it’s time you went home . . .” and “Mrs. Maxwell, although . . .”: McDonald (1964) 20, 21. Second recollection is by G. P. Thomson, son of J. J. Thomson. p. 198, should not call on him at home: Strutt (1968) 407 (footnote to p. 44). p. 199, “Suppose a man . . .”: Maxwell to WT, February 20, 1854; Larmor (1936). p. 199, “been rewarded of late . . .”: Maxwell to WT, November 30, 1854, Larmor (1936). p. 199, “I would be much assisted . . .”: Maxwell to WT, September 13, 1855; Larmor (1936). p. 201, “How few understand the physical lines of force!”: from diary of Faraday’s niece, November 7, 1855; Williams (1965) 507. p. 201, “one of the most valuable . . .”: from Maxwell’s review of E&M, Nature, 7(1873):218-221. p. 202, “as far as I know you are the first person . . .”: Maxwell to Faraday, November 9, 1857, Williams (1965) 511. p. 202, “I have been most happy in your kindness . . .”: Williams (1965) 494. p. 202, “I am, I hope, very thankful . . .”: Faraday to Auguste de la Rive, 1861, Williams (1965) 500. p. 203, “Do you know of any elementary work . . .”: F101, Fischer to WT, October 20, 1855. p. 203, “I fancy that we might easily give . . .”: T6B, Tait to WT, December 12, 1861. p. 204, “Let us apportion our work . . .”: T6C, Tait to WT, December 25, 1861.

PAGES 195-209


p. 204, “the expense to the students . . .”: T6D, Tait to WT December 28, 1861. p. 204, “I will shortly send you . . .”: T6G, Tait to WT, January 15, 1862. p. 205, “I wish you would send back . . .”: T6L, Tait to WT, January 30, 1862. p. 205, “at all events act speedily”: T6M, Tait to WT, January 31, 1862. p. 205, “Dr T, Do look alive . . .”: T6W, Tait to WT, May 5, 1864. p. 205, “I wish you would go ahead . . .”: T6X, Tait to WT, June 20, 1864. p. 205, “You are a terrible fellow . . .”: S159, Stokes to WT, January 20, 1857. p. 206, “the making of the first part . . .”: Obituary of Tait, MPP VI. p. 206, “better known in my year . . .”: Barrie (1889). p. 206, “The credit of breaking up the monopoly . . .”: Maxwell’s review of Thomson and Tait, Nature, 10(1879). p. 207, “Three pages of formulae can easily . . .”: Tait to Cayley, October 22, 1888, Knott (1911) 159. p. 207, “remarkable condensation not to say coagulation . . .”: Knott (1911) 153. p. 207, “We have had a thirty-eight year . . .”: C87, Kelvin to G. Chrystal, July 13, 1901; also in Knott (1911) 185. p. 207, “Oh! That the Cayleys . . .”: WT to Helmholtz, July 31, 1864, SPT I 432. p. 208, “the art of reading mathematical books . . .”: Gray (1908) 294. p. 209, “ . . . no proof at all . . .”: Tait to WT, January 18, 1868, Knott (1911) 220. p. 209, “Is it fair to ask you . . .”: Tait to Helmholtz, March 27, 1867; Knott (1911) 217. p. 209, “I enclose a letter just rec’d . . .”: Quoted by J. T. Lloyd (1970), who does not identify the author of the letter. p. 209, “For my part I must say . . .”: Helmholtz to Tait, April 30, 1867, Knott (1911) 217.



p. 209, “in all its individuality”: Knott (1911) 217. p. 210, a supposedly personal letter: Philosophical Magazine, 7(1879):344-346; also Art. 85 in MPP V.

p. 215, “has, after anxious consideration . . .”: WT to Mrs. Tait, March 29, 1871, SPT II 586. p. 216, “married one of the sisters . . .”: Knott (1911) 14. p. 216, “Thomson met me in the Kinnaird Hall . . .”: Eve and Creasey (1945) 124. p. 216, “There will be a splendid row . . .”: Tait to Tyndall, March 18, 1872, and Tyndall’s reply; Eve and Creasey (1945) 162. p. 217, “the flow of word-painting and righteous indignation . . .”: This and the following remarks are from Nature, 8(1873):381, 399, 431. p. 217, “especially inappropriate”: Undated remark to David King, SPT II 649. p. 218, In the very beginnings of science . . .: Campbell and Garnett (1884) 415. p. 218, “for surely [they] did not hold council . . .”: Book 1 of De Rerum Natura, in the translation by A. M. Esolen (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995). p. 219, assured Mrs. Tait: WT to Mrs. Tait, May 8, 1871, SPT II 592. p. 219, “You will not rest . . .”: SPT II 595. p. 219, he amusingly recounted to a friend: WT to G. Darwin, July 25, 1882, SPT II 784. p. 220, “It was a strange reunion . . .”: WT to Jessie Crum, undated, SPT II 597. p. 220, “learn (at its headquarters) . . .”: Tait to Helmholtz, May 20, 1871, Knott (1911) 196. p. 220, “Mr. Tait knows nothing here besides golf.”: Helmholtz to his wife, August 29, 1871; German original in Knott (1911) 197n (my translation). SPT II 612-624 has a longer English version.

PAGES 209-239


p. 220, “an indescribably sad impression . . .” and subsequent extracts: Helmholtz to his wife, August/September 1871; given in English by SPT II 613-614. Königsberger (1906), ch. 10, includes many of the same letters, in slightly different translations. p. 221, “a husband who is no longer in his first youth . . .”: Königsberger (1906), ch. 10; not included by SPT. p. 222, “Now, mind, Helmholtz . . .”: SPT II 614. p. 222, “. . . immense intellectual strength . . .”: Crowther (1935) 201. p. 223, “much ashamed”: On Deep-Sea Sounding by Pianoforte Wire, PLA III. p. 225, “No harm was done”: Memoir of Fleeming Jenkin, ch. 3, Colvin and Ewing (1887). p. 225, “Goodbye, goodbye, Sir William Thomson”: SPT II 639; also AGK 33. p. 226, His new wife was in her mid-30s: Smith and Wise (1989), ch. 21, give Fanny’s year of birth as ca. 1838; provenance unstated. p. 226, “When I came to Madeira . . .”: WT to Elizabeth, May 12, 1874, SPT II 645. p. 227, “as I have so many engagements . . .”: WT to Charles A. Smith, April 28, 1874, SPT II 643. p. 228, “Oh, I’ll tell you what you should do.”: Knott (1911) 31. p. 229, “utterly surprised”: S356, Stokes to WT, June 5, 1879. p. 229, “That is the very thing for me”: S362, Stokes to WT, July 9, 1979; see also S361, an unsent draft of 362. p. 233, “evil so pregnant with mischief ”: Fanning (1986), introduction. p. 235, “to see ‘the Retribution’ swing . . .”: S70, WT to Stokes, July 19, 1850. p. 236, “When I tried to write on the mariner’s compass . . .”: Terrestrial Magnetism and the Mariner’s Compass, PLA III. p. 237, “By a happy coincidence”: Obituary of Archibald Smith, MPP VI. p. 239, “ . . . so dangerous a tool as a moveable magnet . . .”: Fanning (1986) 69.



p. 239, “a process of ‘Artificial Selection’ . . .”: Terrestrial Magnetism and the Mariner’s Compass, PLA III. p. 239, “between 1850 and 1880 . . .”: Hitchins and May (1952) 79. p. 240, “innovation is very distasteful to sailors . . .”: Sounding by Pianoforte wire, PLA III. p. 241, Some naval historians: Cotter (1976, 1977) disparages WT’s work and (in my estimation) overstates Airy’s contributions. p. 241, “enunciated no new principles . . .”: Hitchins and May (1952) 82. p. 241, “It won’t do”: SPT II 710. p. 242, thlipsinomic, platythliptic . . .: Kargon and Achinstein (1987) 131. p. 243, “marvellously distinct”: SPT II 671, from WT’s report at the exhibition. p. 244, “the originality, the inventiveness . . .”: WT in BA Reports (1876); also New York Times, October 4, 1876. p. 244, “To see such men is a privilege . . .”: Montreal Gazette, September 4, 1876. p. 244, “ . . . England’s great mathematician and electrician”: Philadelphia Inquirer, September 4, 1876. p. 244, “the great event in the year’s work . . .”: Baltimore Sun, September 20, 1884. p. 245, “would give a strong impulse . . .”: Gilman to WT, August 13, 1882, SPT II 811. p. 245, “the very best and most effective . . .”: G75, Gilman to WT, January 8, 1884; enclosure from W. Gibbs. p. 247, “the lecturer is a man tall . . .”: Baltimore Sun, October 2, 1881. p. 247, “What an extraordinary performance that was! . . .”: Strutt (1968) 145. p. 248, “ . . . the usual Thomsonian style . . .”: Rayleigh to his mother, October 19, 1884, Strutt (1968) 147. p. 248, “he has been known to lecture for an hour . . .”: J. J. Thomson (1936) 424.

PAGES 239-258


p. 248, the “wiggler”: SPT II 832. p. 251, “ . . . cinematics instead of kinematics . . .”: Kargon and Achinstein (1987) 129, 148. p. 251, “I never satisfy myself until I can make a mechanical model . . .”: WT reported in Nature, 31(1885):508. p. 252, “stripped of the scaffolding . . .”: Whittaker (1989) vol. 1, 255. p. 252, “writing out the Lord’s Prayer . . .”: Bacon (1929) 6. p. 253, “We still have ancient Admirals . . .”: Fisher (1919), Memories, 99. p. 253, “the most suitable number Captain Fisher could think of ”: Bacon (1929) 50. p. 253, “No, thank you, I am quite warm.”: Fisher (1919), Memories, 251. p. 254, “ . . . the Incarnation of Revolution”: Fisher (1919), Records, 20. p. 254, “He diagnosed the matter . . .”: Bacon 77. p. 254, “Well,” Fisher asked . . .: Fisher (1919), Memories, 142. p. 255, “We fight God . . .”: Fisher (1919), Records, 71. p. 255, “It was an immense difficulty . . .”: Fisher (1919), Records, 63. p. 255, “pig-headed and self-opinionated . . .”: May (1979). p. 256, “I can state from long experience . . .”: F105, Fisher to WT, October 16, 1885. p. 257, “‘My Lord, what has this to do with the case? . . .”: J. J. Thomson (1936) 386. p. 258, “much mean and underhand work . . .”: Elizabeth to her daughters, November 23, 1889, AGK 89. p. 258, Fanning tells a different story: Fanning (1986), ch. 4. p. 258, “I may single out . . .”: C168, Creak to WT, December 3, 1883. p. 258, “When the Thomson compass was first introduced . . .”: Fanning (1986) 154.



p. 261, Lord Cable! Lord Compass!: AGK 106. p. 262, “I am afraid it cannot be . . .”: WT to G. Darwin, November 20, 1884, SPT II 840. p. 262, “Some day you will be proud . . .”: J. J. Thomson (1936) 10. p. 262, “to my great surprise . . .”: J. J. Thomson (1936) 98. p. 262, “pre-eminent service in promoting arts . . .”: SPT II 968973. p. 262, “friends and comrades . . .”: SPT II 984. p. 263, “seemed to ring through the hall . . .”: SPT II 988; AGK 116. p. 264, “Naturalist. A person well versed . . .”: On the Rigidity of the Earth, MPP III. p. 264, “magnificent display of smoke-rings . . .”, “the clash of atoms” and other extracts: On Vortex Atoms, MPP IV. p. 265, “pungent and disagreeable”: WT to Helmholtz, January 22, 1867, SPT I 514. p. 268, The following story is true . . .: Waves from moving sources, Heaviside (1951), vol. 3, 1. p. 268, “What would Edison say . . . ”: Gossick (1976). p. 269, his address as inaugural president of the IEE: Ether, Electricity and Ponderable Matter, MPP III. p. 270, “ . . . the cart-men shouted abuse . . .”: Searle (1987) 10. p. 270, “I have to give you my best thanks . . .”: H53, Heaviside to WT, February 27, 1889. p. 270, “You may judge of the intensity . . .”: Searle (1987) 77. p. 272, “save[s] letters, and eases the memory . . .” H53, supra. p. 272, Faraday “did the most”: Kargon and Achinstein (1987) 148. p. 273, “if we put aside practical application to Physics . . .”: Heaviside (1951), vol. 1, 301. p. 273, “Passing to Prof. Tait’s letter . . .”: Heaviside (1951), vol. 3, 509.

3. . Darwin. . . 1896. p. FitzGerald to Kelvin.”: Heaviside (1951). “You say . 1886. 284. 1888. . October 4.’ ”: F127. 170(1879):529. 286. Darwin. p. . . Thomson (1936) 95. Knott (1911) 106. February 25. . 285. 275.”: D35. 285. 7(1873):218-221. September 14. . “I do not wish to combat . . . 279. p. June 4. p. 274. . p. “latest blast of the anti-geological trumpet . . SPT II 1070n. November 13. 275. April 17.”: SPT II 1047. Strutt (1968) 243. Nature. 279. Brown in Darwin (1916).”: Darwin’s Inaugural Plumian Lecture. “I was Lord Kelvin’s pupil . 32(1885):4. . p. p. . “never hesitated to embark on . . 1898. . 279. 1896. “Heaviside’s nihilism”: Kelvin to FitzGerald. . 274. p. . “Like most problems in vortex motion . p. 280. . p.”: G48. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. p. 1888. footnote to a paper of 1904. . Geikie to Kelvin. . “It would puzzle . “After many years of failure . 284. “Under these circumstances . . G. “worbles”: Maxwell to Tait. 281. 275. . vol. . p. .”: This and subsequent extracts. p. mere conjuring tricks with symbols . 479.”: London Times. ‘The luminiferous ether . Darwin to WT. “Sir W. p. . . April 29. “ . . “Sir William Thomson in one paper . Nature. p. . “Lord Kelvin used to call me a nihilist . 276. . .”: Maxwell’s review of E&M. 51(1895):224-227. . Schuster. including the letters to Perry from Tait and Kelvin. “Sir Wm. . 283.”: Nature. Thomson’s speaking of the ether . p.PAGES 261-286 349 p. is full of a froth theory of the ether!”: Rayleigh to A. .”: G. “a certain amount of opposition .”: E. 284. Darwin (1916). W. .”: Strutt (1968) 252. 1867. J. . Darwin (1916). .” and “But why does no one .”: J. but referring to work done sometime after 1887. p.”: From the biographical sketch by F. “My dear old George .

p.”: Buffalo Express. .”: Toronto Daily Mail and Empire. . p. 292. 1897.”: Toronto Daily Mail and Empire. “I often say . “believed the Falls of Niagara . 1897. “Stokes would remain silent . “Helmholtz and Uncle William were inseparable . “It has occurred to me . 290. . . . . . 288.”: Kelvin to Fitzgerald. . p. 292. “ . p. p. 2(1901):1-40. .”: Kargon and Achinstein (1987) 129. . the etherealisation of common sense”: The Six Gateways to Knowledge. MPP V. p. . p. . 294. . 289. “westinghoused”: Baldwin (2001) 202. 287. . p. . August 19. August 16.”: Ether. 289. Electricity and Ponderable Matter. 289. 292. Philosophical Magazine. 294. “I always consulted my great authority . April 9. Thomson (1936) 50. .”: Nineteenth-Century Clouds over the Dynamical Theory of Heat and Light.”: Strutt (1968) 243. . 286.”: J. “A gentleman of exceedingly pleasant manners . . SPT II 1064. p. . . “As the demand goes on increasing . unlike that awful Chicago”: Königsberger (1906). p. p. . . 291. . . . . “I would not advise manufacturers . “ . a tale recounted by Lord Rayleigh’s son: Strutt (1968) 240.”: On the Economy of Metal in Conductors of Electricity. .”: Electrical Units of Measurement. p. I have been considering the subject for forty-two years . PLA I. “It is mere nihilism . 288. . 291.350 Notes p. . PLA I. August 18. 1897. . August 19. J. 11. p. . 286.”:Buffalo Express. 293. 20(1879):110. . p. “The first line would send him off .”: SPT II 926.”: A statement to the press reprinted by SPT II 1002. . 292. p. . “a plain American citizen . 1896. “most economical size . . MPP III. p. p. “ . ch. p. not in the collected works but appears as Appendix B to the 1904 Baltimore Lectures. 286. “when the whole water from Lake Erie . . .”: Nature. 1897.

May 5. limping . p. “rough gaiety . PLA II.”: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. as we now do . 68(1903):526. 301.”: Obituary of Tait. 302. . p. Aepinus Atomized: Philosophical Magazine. p. who is . “greatest of living scientists . .”: Larmor (1907) 36. . . September 24. p. 305.”: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. May 2. . . 1902. p. 1902.”: SPT II 870. “from without the atoms . p. V.”: Kelvin reported in Nature.”: Knott (1911) 63. AGK 130. 295. 1856.PAGES 286-305 351 p. 303. there is nothing practical in that” and following extracts: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “My principal intelligence . “A horrid demon of the No. .”: Nature. p. . . 302.”: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. 294. “exceedingly cautious . . . not in the collected works but appears as Appendix E to the 1904 Baltimore Lectures.”: S371. 299. . MPP VI. . “Oh. 3(1902):257283. . p. 305. Thomson (1936) 50. “Both as a student and as a professor . . wearing a bright red jacket: letter from ETK. p. . 5 nerve”: Kelvin to SPT. Stokes to WT. Stokes to WT. “ . 295. .”: New York Times. p. 1899. . 300.”: The Bangor Laboratories. J. “There is one thing I feel strongly . “the Professor seemed very depressed . “looking very venerable. p. p. p. 305. April 20. . 304. . . .”: S153. . . 298. 68(1903):447.”: Nature. 296. 301. “can barely be distinguished . . . 1902. 304. SPT II 1149. . the eggs were always boiled . p. p. “the hundred million years . 68(1903):611. “knowing. 1896. Boys. 68(1903):496. “it is curious how these things . 1902.”: J. . . . 1902. “one gentleman. October 14.”: Nature. . Propped up in bed. p. p. p. remark is by C. 1879. 303. . . March 29. April 30. . September 23. p. . “the utter scientific absurdity . 298. May 3. 298.

”: E.”: Nature. p. . “a main pioneer and creator . p. Kelvin fell fast asleep . 1904. 306. “I shall always remember . 76(1907):457. May 22. “one of the greatest scientists . “the most distinguished .”: Helmholtz to his wife.”: Proceedings of the Royal Society A 81(1908):iii-lxxvi (appendix). . 70(1904) supplement. “In proposing a vote of thanks . 1907. “to my relief.”: London Times. . December 18. SPT II 805. p. Ray Lankester. . 313. 77(1907):175-177. “the foremost scientist . 1884. iii-v. “expression of distrust .”: Nature.”: Rutherford to his wife. p. p. 311. . EPILOGUE p. 1907. . . p. 310. 1907. . 74(1906):516-518. p. 307. 311. .”: Nature. . “Sir Wm might do better . . 308. “it is less easy to speak . December 18.”: New York Times.”: Schuster (1932) 242. 311. . . . 313. . . . “Whatever opinion may be formed .”: AGK 80. . p. . p. 77(1908):199200. . “Lord Kelvin preferred . . “Lord Kelvin is rather a clever man. . p. p. 312. 307.352 Notes p.”: Nature. .”: Eve (1939) 107. . 309. .”: Nature. “Lord Kelvin has talked radium . p. “What a happy strenuous career . . 312. 305. quoted by Wilson (1910). 312. p. Eve (1939) 108.”: Washington Star. . December 18. . .

161. 312. William. John Couch. 54. 262. 106. 244 American Cyanamide. 53. 80. 232-233 353 . 83 Arago. 284. 6. 100. 6. 87-88. 260 Apreece. 272-273. 253. 306. 56. 238. George. Mrs. 244-252. 241 Albert. 138-139. 262. Dominique-François. 135. 141.. 4. 219. 133. 295-297. Charles. 274-275. 309. 53-54 Armstrong. 121. 110. Francis. 161. 230 American Association for the Advancement of Science. 264. 99. 264. See also Compass Department Aepinus. 228. 237238. 143 Absolute zero temperature. 193-194. 296. 151 Anglo-American Telegraph. 285-286. 301. 235. 162 Atomic models. 285 Admiralty (U. 109-110 Action-at-a-distance philosophy. 91 Baltimore lectures. 291 Amontons. Franz Ulrich Theodor. André-Marie. 289. 5. 313 Automobiles. 233-234.). 298 Airy. 266. 239. 99. 231. 242. 306-307. 311. 101. 62. 241-242. Prince. 126 Atlantic Telegraph Company. 303. 55 Bacon. 137.K. 240. 316 Barlow. 240. 303. 276. 313. 289. 255259. 5. 129. 105 Adams. 227 Athenaeum (magazine). Peter. 314 Airships. 296. 99 Ampère. 125.Index A Absolute temperature scale. 306. 4. 291 B Babbage. Guillaume.

117-118. 219. 31-34. 76. 283. 221. 134. 128 City of Glasgow Union Railway Company. Hugh. 122. 217 Buchanan. mechanical. 145. 2. 196. 198-199. 54 Bright. Andrew. 216. 67. 136. 48-50. 158-159. 147. 53. 228-229 Calculus differential. 275. 247 Burney. M. 111. 314 Bottomley. 66-70. 128. 61. 88. 279 Capacitors and capacitance. 72. 25 Belfast Magazine and Literary Journal. 25 Chasles. Charles. 130. 211. 147. 115. 197 Cayley. 36. 206 Battle of Ballynahinch. 61. 21 science and mathematics at. 79. 109-110. 287 Chlorine. Charles Arthur. 80-81 Caloric. 221. 223 Case Research Institute. 55. 100. 196-197. J. 287 Bottomley. 88. Hippolyte. 157 Bristed. 2. 243 Bernard. 101-103. 153. 52-53 St. Robert. 19. 21. 195 . 53-54. 117 Brewster. 112-113. 16. 303 Boscovichian theory. 124. 268 Charles I. 75. Augustin Louis. 172. Professor. 152. 167. 14. 163. 297. 311. 54. 94. 156-157 Brett’s Submarine Telegraph (Brett). 267. 220. 93 Smith’s prize. 54-55 integral. 54-55. 143. 52 Bunsen. 261. 94. 216 undergraduate life. 199. 171. 172. Alexander Graham. 96. Michel. 180. 79 Cambridge University Adams Prize. 54 Belfer. 303. 66. 119 Brett. 50 British Association for the Advancement of Science. 43. 262. 199. 53. 207. Fanny. James. 55 Blackburn. 195. 90. Giordano. Roger. 297. 285 Cavendish Laboratory and Chair. Frederic. 287 Blackburn. 122. 7. Sadi. 78 Church. 45. 196. 83 Biot. 8 Bell. 151. 101. 197. 196. Henry. 105. 41. 225 Blandy. Jean-Baptiste. 20. 219 Brett. 244. 53. 125. 53. 261-262 little-go. 216. 197-198. 13. James Thomson. Frances Anna (Fanny). 37. Jacob. 49. Lazare. 230 Bruno. 31-34. 304 Boltzmann. 38-39 C Calculators. 38. Arthur. 145. 238. 198. 287 Blandy. Charles. David. Jemima. 106. 137-138 Buchanan. 217. 276 Cauchy. 1112. 289. 151 Carnegie. 146. 30 Lucasian Professor. 149150. 220. 318 Carnot cycle. 243. 208. 55. 184 Cambridge Mathematical Journal. 4850. 68. 84 Cholera epidemics. 226-227. 27-28. 309 Brunel. 290.. 72-73. 146. 298 Carnot. 239.354 Index Barrie. Sarah. 179. 121. 90 Music Society. 197 wrangler competition. 288. John. 24. 36. 288 Boer War. 29-36. 66 Carnot. 265 Boscovich. 79. 66 Carnot. 79 Chicago World’s Fair. 188. Ludwig. 302. Isambard Kingdom. 82. 277. 130. 114-120. 111. Lauren. 34-35. 55 Cavendish. 37. 148. William. 129. 129. 284285. 131. liquefication. Peter’s College (Peterhouse).

12. 145.S. 254-255 Thomson. 142. 208 Cook. Ezra. 3-4. 156 Clausius. 82 Civil War (England).. 231-232. 164. Josiah Latimer. 24. 241 correction tables. law of. 2. 260-261 Compass Department. 241. Dr. Emma. 106. 83. 167. 277-284. 25 Civil War (U. 230 Cookson. L. 220-221. 82 Darwin. 235-236. A.3 de Sauty. 233. 258 needle design. Walter. 177.INDEX 355 City of Light (Belfer). 52. 103.. 53 Covenanters. 22. Admiralty. George Howard. 297 n. 310 Davy. 169 lunar orbit. 167-168. 144. 111. 302 D Dalton. 95-98. 167-169. Oliver. 318 Colding. 257. 178 Conductivity standards. 212. 125. 98. 203. 142 Conservation of angular momentum. 35. 116 Coulomb. 104 Clark. 134 Democritus. 148. 73 Dance. 186. 230 de Cogan. 110. 170-171. 82. 217 Devonshire. 196 Copernicus. 302. 243. 24 Crum. 214. C. 53. Katherine. 79 Columbia University. 302-303. 144-145 . 298 Commercial Cable Company. 311. 217. 232. 108. 140 n. 196 Dewar. 188. 243. 35. 112. 252. 170. 255-259 Barlow plate.. 253-254.). 152-153. 162 Clapeyron.6 de Castro. 49. 265. John. 107. 8 City Philosophical Society. 36. 258 Cromwell. 95 Curie. 84 Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society (Melbourne). 237. 6. Ettrick W. Pierre. Charles. 257-259 Compasses Admiralty Standard. 191192. 177189. Duke of. João. 75.. 21. 268 E Earth age/lifetime controversy. Charles. 280 magnetic field. 279 Darwin. 151. 236-237 swinging a ship to calibrate. Humphrey. 104-105. 62. 69. W. Captain. 208-211. 65-66. 25. 237-238. 154. 109. 24. 164165. 181-182. Mr. 257. 280 Conservation of energy. 255-256. 283. 146. Charles. 174. Margaret (Kelvin’s wife). 235. 82. 6. Samuel Taylor. 240 heeling error. 187 Coleridge. 61. 234. 279 Darwin. Rudolf. 151 Cours d’Analyse (Cauchy). 240-241 iron ships and. 308 heat gradients within. 239-240. 241242. 156. 6. 240. 189-190. 226 Crum. 230-243 latitude error. 237. 55.. 88-89 Creak. D. Emile. 279-280. 256-259 Comptes Rendus (journal). 106.. 217 Cornell. 121-122. 184. 189. 254-255 Flinders bar. 217. 44. 172-177. 172. 84. 232 binnacle. 242. 183. 237. 234 liquid. 235-236. 198 Dickens. 72. 110.

242. 145 Electricity. 269 Electrical measurement. 159. 91. 208-211. 140. 292-294. 93. 272 Energy and Empire (Smith and Wise). 179. 121122. 4. Thomas. 205 Edison. 7. 217 Essay on the Application of Mathematical Analysis to the Theories of Electricity and Magnetism (Green). 8 ac/dc controversy. 253-254 standardization of units. 265 Epicurus. 3. 199203. 271-272. A. 80. 181. 135. Michael. 131. 197. 312 F Fahrenheit. 245-246. 82-88. 136. 79. 243-244. Leonhard. 258 Evelina (Burney). 6. 243. 55. 74-75. 134. 269. 53 Euler. 73. 84-87. 269 Electrician (journal). 311 Feilitzsch (German astronomer). 197 and submarine telegraph. 267. 299. 258 Faraday. 161. 105. 158. 154.5 England industrial revolution. 286. 300 Euclid. Frederick. 269. 95 Evolution. 306 Electric fields. See also Electromagnetic fields Electric meters. 56. 156. 301 early theories. 162 . 253. 284. 260. 110-111. 98 Fanning. 279. 157. 267 Electromagnetic theory. 224 Edinburgh Academy. 223. 60 Ely. 116 Eastern Cable Company. J.. 9. 251-252. 238. 283. 284 East India Company. 290-294. 211-214 Ewing. 105. 84-85. 180 Field. Gabriel. 245-246. 86-88. 157. 120. 94 n. 85 Electromagnetic spectrum. 64-65 mathematics and science in. 262. 112. George. 281. 298 Edward VII. 80. 278. 3. 86. 255. 293. 8.356 Index Electrons.. 151-152. 296-297 generation and transmission. 293 Electricity (Murphy). 84 Electromagnetic fields. 115. 142-144. 178. 188 mathematical definition of. 295 Entropy. 180. 50. 199. 73. Cyrus West. 35. 142-153. 82. 291. 118 Evans. E. 301 industry and residential. 289. 121-125 transformers. 266. 251-252. 61. 242. 300 Echo-sounding sonar devices. 296 Ellis. 263. 54-55 and submarine telegraph. A. 285-286. 293. 202. R. 155. Albert. 2. L. 79 Ether models. 282-283 tidal friction. 62 Encyclopedia Britannica. 268. 79. 47. 3. 248-249. 227. 314 Electromagnetic induction. 202. 267. 142. 200. 116-118 telegraph line. 38-39. 121. 260 Eastman. 73. 4. 138. 199 Electrochemistry. 262-263. 2. theory of. 5. 80. 200. 255 Einstein. 106. 264. 127. 9. 241. 49. 127-130. 264. 54 European and American Telegraph Company. 280. 70-71 thermal properties and composition. 299 on ships. 93. 6. 201. 146-153. 299-300. 155. Bishop of. 82 Energy internal. mathematics of. 35. 239. 269-271. 306. 295-296. 174. 277.. 272-273. 245-247. 73-74.

Augustin. 195-196 Natural Philosophy chair. 315 Fourier. 54. 45. 37. 240 Fluid mechanics. 101.. 4447 cholera epidemics. 58 relocation. 310 FitzGerald. 33 Flinders. 190-191 Gardner.INDEX 357 Field. 7677. 132. 101 experimental physics laboratory. 7. Karl Friedrich. Daniel Coit. 113. John. 276-277. 19. 247 French Academy of Sciences. 53-54 Friction. 248. 266-267.3 Galvani. 9091 Glass. 142-143. 289. 124. 160. 286. 116. 82. 11. 285-286. 15-17. 27-28. 155. 194-195 Westminister confession. A. 78 engineering department. 154 Glasgow University. 161 Good Words (magazine). 203 Fisher. Lewis. 35. 94. 128 Fischer. 80 Green’s theorems. 162-163. 230-231. 37. 297 Gravitational energy. 232-233. Captain. J. Archibald. 36. Edmund. 38. 169 France science and mathematics in. 158 Gutta Percha Company. 101 Grand unified theory. 115. 147148. George. 250-251. 159 H Halley. 167 Great Britain (ship). 158 Green. 277. 57 Fresnel. 139. 156. 53-57. Joseph von. 79. 18. J. Elliott. 48. 134. 272. 151 Galvanometers. 174-175 n. 145. 25. 158-159. 94. 252-258. 217. Agnes. 106-107. 78. 167. 34. Ludwig. Margaret. William Rowan. Frederick. 284. 312 Forbes. Daniel. 36. 110. Jean-Baptiste Joseph. 61 Geikie. George Francis. 313 Flarty. 54 and submarine telegraph. 236 Gordon. David F. 245 Gilman. 157. 27-28. 244-245 Gisborne. 57. 186. 66. 50. 135136. Matthew. 120. 40. 79. 132-133. 217 Glasgow Philosophical Society. 117-118 Fraunhofer. 172. 140.7 Hamilton. 159. 175 Germany science and mathematics in. 116 Gibb. 230 Great Eastern (ship). 80. 9294. 282. 232 Gauss. 142. 75 G Galileo. 95 Gallio. 88-89. 161. 98. 203 Gall. 26-27 Garryowen (steamer). 162 Great Western Railway Company. 266-267. 128 Glacier motion. 29. 131. 169. John Arbuthnot. 102. 43.. 69 and submarine telegraph. 5253. 141. 16-18. 44. 86 Gutta percha. D. 85. Wolcott. 69. Matthew. 264. 234. 28. 20. 285. 14. 304. 156. 310 Geological Society of Glasgow. 46. 13. 134-135. 129. 82 Gregory. 54-55 n. 278. 317 Gibbs. 19-20 Fourier’s law of heat conduction. 159 Gooch.. 274275. 164 Fourier series. 219 Fleming. 222. theoretical dispute. Luigi. 285. 235. 122 . 35. 177-178. 129. 167.

105. 85 Herringham. 144. 55.M. Northhampton. 153. 182187. 220 Index Institution of Electrical Engineers (U. 154 Jenkin. 262. 108. 206. 225.). 177. 202. 223. 235 Herschel. 132 Huxley. 3. 237. 195-196. 254 H. 82. Lord Kelvin Kelvin and White. 152 n.5. 102. See Thomson. 207. 110. 208. 154. 135 H. 291292 Kinetic theory. 150. Philip. 218-219 H. 133. 55. 145. 152. 287. Oliver. 13. 180. 54. 246 Iron ships. 35. 269. 179. 71 House..S. 311. Fleeming. 9 . Lord. 151. 64-65. 232-233. 224. 46. Joseph. 266-267. 93. 287 Johns Hopkins University. 7 Kelvin’s law of power transmission.358 Harvard College. 42. Inflexible.). 185 India Telegraph Service. 76. 285. 313 Henry. 230-243 Isotropic materials. 51-52. 149 James VI of Scotland (James I of England). 167. 30-31. Royal E. 286 International Conference for the Determination of Electrical Units.K. 24.M. W. 140. 196. 220.. William. 284 King. 264. William. 216. 266. 16-18. James Prescott. 312313. Agnes Gardner. 61. 287 Helmholtz. 253. 131. Captain. H. 73 Jacobi. 191 Institute of Electrical Engineers (U. 298 Institution of Civil Engineers (London). and work production. 150 Inverse-square law. compasses and. 185. 35. 101. 134... 267-274. 80. 41. 224. 209. 103. Immanuel. 37. 153. 132. 225 Hopkins. 163. 96. See also Carnot cycle Ideal gas law. 84. 185 Kelland. 221-222. 173-175. 146. 186. 80 Horseley’s. 34 Kelvin.3. Annie. 173. 170. 72-75. 21. 104. Agamemnon.S. 152. 287-289. 48-49. 318 Journal de Mathématique. 219-220 Industrial revolution. Anna von. 302-303 Joule. 35. 245 H. 24-25 Jenkin. 154 Heat transfer. 281. Heinrich. 284. 100. 212. 297 n.M. 73 Inkjet printer. 61. 132-133.6 Hertz. 32. J. 82. 8 Kelvin-Helmholtz timescale. 118. 244-252 Johnson. 214.6 Helmholtz. M.S. 146-148. 245 Heat conduction. 17-20. 291. 62. Thomas H. 189. 34. 285. 97. Edward.S. Carl. 109. 107. 264-265. 193-194. 187188. 242. William. 107.. 99. 144. 216. 316-317 I Ideal engine. W. 130. 164 Heat pump. 250 J Jacobi. 178. 286. 238 Joly. Hermann von. 62. 148. 297 n. 225 n.M. 106. 8 Kelvin angle. 112-113.S. 67 Heaviside. 43-44. 253 Hooper (cable ship). 55 K Kant. 70. 291.

228. 166 Michelson. 227-228. 297 May. 167. 302.. 298. 200. Edward. 312 Maxwellians. 53. 218 Lyell. Julius Robert. 134 Morse code. 312. 316-317 King. 216. 299. 302 Lagrange. 122 Lightbulb. 260 M Macleod. 269. 56. 128. 217. W.INDEX 359 King. 55. Simon. William. 317 King’s College. 274. 211 Mayes. William. 116. 46. 192 Leverrier. 304 Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. Pierre Simon. 245-246. 170 Magnus effect. George. 195. 227. E. 222. 227. 283 Nature (magazine). 5. 270. 178. 217-218. 80 Liverpool Compass Committee. 275. 54 Lalla Rookh and sailing adventures. 289 McGill University. 230 Lines of force. 208. James Clerk. 312 Nautical Almanac Office.5 Morley. 267. 284. 295. Albert. 217. 306. 298. Mr. 206. 121. Dean. 35. See also Electromagnetic fields. 204. 312 Newcomb. Thomas. 129. 193 n. 251-252. 276. 79. Joseph. 169. Guglielmo. 73. 201. 66 National Academy of Sciences. 287. 273. 276. 199. 2. 241. 261. 3. 228 Larmor. 295. 206-207. Elizabeth Thomson. 194-195. Joseph. Albert. 132. 273 Liouville. 181-182. 196-203. John. 265. 270271. 220.4. Electromagnetic theory . 210. 186 Maconochie. 63. 306. Hendrik. Gottfried. 228 N Napoleon I. 276-277 Low.. 216. 58. 216. 54. 221. 40. 272. 235. 205. 258. 285. Leon. 302 McKinley. 120. 293 Mercury (planet). 53. 285 Netherhall house and laboratory. 247 Knott. 255 Mayer. 116. 61 Magnetic fields. 178 Macmillan’s Magazine. Gustav. 304 Lucretius. Urbain. 62. 93 Menlo Park. 309. 239 Lodge. 242 Laplace. 270 Leibnitz. 277 Moore. 260 National Physical Laboratory. 282 n. Charles. 63. 149. 253 Lighthouse signaling code. 220. 225. 284-285. 91. 59. 288 Natural selection. 219 King. 193. 277 Morse. 47. 263. William. Joseph Louis. 264. 286. G. Samuel. 311. David Thomson. 255. 85. 54-55 Leitch. 230-243. 246. 242. 274. 215. 240. 217. 86. 166 Leyden jar. 307. 313 Lederman. 184. 229 Neptune (planet). Norman. 272 Lorentz. 287 King. 78. 149 Kirchhoff. 219. 198 Maxwell. 223-224. 45. 301 L Laborde. C. 74 Marconi. 273. 56. 53. 146. David. 154-155. 287.. Oliver. 226. 299 Marischal College. 185-189. 80. 274 Kodak Company. 119. 119. 8 Meikleham. 277. 212-213. 60.

262-263. 107. 275. 246 Perry. 116 Owen. 90. 142. 111 Principles of Geology (Lyell). 151 Ohm’s law. 212 O’Shaughnessy. 210 Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 58. 306 Resistance. 272 Presbyterian Church of Scotland. 307. 205 Physics textbook.360 Newton. 186. 144. 52-53 Paroxysmal hypotheses. 213 Parkinson. 305. 216 Porter. John. 260 Principle of maximum efficiency. 51. 8 Riebau. 74. 122. 288 Planck. 65. 57. John.M. 123. 247. 88-89 Pressure recording device. 74. 82. 148-149. Robert. 242. 207-208. 303. 284. 168 Pasley. 247-248. Stephen. 308 Radioactivity. 53 Philosophical Magazine. 65. 283 Poynting. 31. 203. 58 Nonisotropic materials. 54. 281-282 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition.. 229. S. 25 Nuclear physics. 144. 24. 6. 110. 222. 82 Ritchie. J. Max. 231 O Ohm. 28. 124. Victor. 275. H. 246 Permittivity of a vacuum. 144. 261-262. 70 Nichol. 179. 1. 53.S. James. 171 Rankine. B. William John MacQuorn. 273-274. 224-225 Princeton University. 152 Resolution (ship). 306 Quaternions. 262. 262 Index Poulton. Rush. Andrew. 216 R Radio waves.. 49. 150. 56. 28. 303. John (son). 313-314 Quantum theory.. 106. 245 Radioactive dating. 143. Colonel. 123. 189. 310 Regnault. 302. 250-251 Northern Ireland. 99. 211. 229 . 88 Permeability of a vacuum. 306. E. 317 Roberts. 3. 243 R. 73. 309 Rainbow (steamer). 304 Queenwood school. 230 Rhees. 302. 203-208 Physikalische-Technische Reichsanstalt. 289. 170. 216 Porter. William. 90. 250-251. 311 Nichol. 145. 179 Q Quantum mechanics. 45. 53. 267. 48. 4. Georg Simon. John Pringle (Professor). 179 P Paley. 318 Rayleigh. 116 Peel. Edward. 306 Poisson. 187. 16. 235 Porter. 288. 196. 243 Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Newton). 263. 108. 244. 151 Origin of Species (Darwin). Lord. 204. 4. 202. William. 303 Radioactive decay. Robert. 104 Relativity. 233 Ramsay. 2. E. electrical. Isaac. Siméon Denis. Bishop. 306. 102. 50. 124. 54. 111. 286. 287. 204. 194. 277. 169 Proceedings of the Royal Society. 108. Makura. 54-55. 307. 116 Pembroke College. George. 100.

George Gilbert. 246. See also Telegraphy theory electromagnetic theory and. 290 Siemens. 79 Sèguin. Wilhelm. 302. S. 163. 57. 240. 118. 157 Siemens. 93. 179-180. 307. 2. 129 . 309 Rutherford. 90 Strutt. 151 Signal transmission. 218 n. 247-249. 208211 Smith. 116.. 235236. 148. 265. 203. 223-225. 152.. 84 Schuster. Newall. 128-130. 134-135. 75 Clapeyron’s analysis. 305 Stokes’s theorem. 173. 243 St. Charles. 80 Submarine telegraph cable cable design and experiments. 297 n. 72. 94-95 Smith. 288. 276. 220. Count (Benjamin Thompson). 205. 47. 229. 124-125 Sketch of Thermodynamics (Tait). 206 n.6 Ruskin. 284 Speed of light. Robert. 115. 166. 156-157. 6465 Carnot’s principle. 13-14. William. 62.S. 124. 238-239 Scotland.6 Scottish Amicable Insurance Office. 123-124. Lord Rector of Glasgow University. Werner. J. 94. 225 Irish Sea. 34. 308. 231 Royal Society of Edinburgh. 180 Social Darwinism. Charles Piazzi. 243 Spectroscopy. 253. 83. 268-269 peristaltic model. 68 Stokes. 94-95. 298 Routh. Willoughby. 129. 222. 125 Stevenson. 74.7 Stirling. 227. 238. 264 Royal Society of London. Robert. Arthur. 317 Smith. 198-199 Rowland. 160. 292 Shaffner. Frederick. 150. 119. 197 Russell. 247 n. 219-220. 119. 195 Scott. 303. mathematics and science in. 180. 181. 217. 65-66 technological problems. George Gabriel. 283. 66 Robinson. 145. 258. Taliaferro. John. 115 n. 289. 268. 122-123. 141. 295 Roosevelt. 60. Marc. 121.. 19. 151. 37. 305 Scoresby. 82.1 Rutherford. 8. 276. 90. 150. 148. E. 90. 193. 101. Miss (Stokes’s wife). 45. 183.5 Royal Institution. 312 R. 309 Sounding devices. Andrews University. Sir Walter.2. Sabrina. 178. 247-248 Strutt. 66-70. 160 English Channel. 95. 20 n. 54 Scott.INDEX 361 Robespierre. 227. James. 94. 83. 121-122. 76. 202. 156-157 fault detection and repair. Herbert. 187 Sellers. 307. 266. 125-126. 260. 205. 103. 153. Russia. 270. 303. 83 Sandemanians. Robert Louis. 8. 235. 114-118. Theodore. 305 Röntgen. 303. 146147. 52. Ernest. 158. John William (Lord Rayleigh).5. 267. 121. 277 Spencer.1 S. 63. Henry A. 94 n. 147 Rumford. 116. 122. Balfour. 308 Royal Military Academy. 149. 88. 316 Sturm. 269 Soddy. 239 Smith. H. 295. 304 Steam power and steam engines. 88-89. Wilhelm. 225 Steward. 152 n. Crosbie. 115 Smyth. Archibald. 218 n. W. 168. 61 S Sandeman. Coleman.1 Society of Telegraph Engineers.

173. 61-62.7. 247 n. 16. 55. 43. S. Transatlantic telegraph automatic receiver and electric pen. 157. 90. 14. 15. J. 220. 177-178. 168-169. 11. 162163. P. 99-100 Thermoscope. 298. 61. 264. 191 mirror galvanometer receiver. 78. 263. 28. 26. 184-187. 45 n. 61. 27. 223 Telephones and telephony. 21. 90. David. 286 telegraphy law of squares. 27. James (brother). 170. 30 n. 40. 179. 77. 182 solar prominences theory. 171. 148. 91. 285. 132. 118-119. 25. 123. 238. 20. 123-124. 94. 25. 26. 248.. 194-195. 263. 167168. 225 Mediterranean Sea. James (father). 147 Persian Gulf to India. Allen.4. 36. 298. 77. 95. 219 Tait. 14. 190-191 siphon recorder. Freddie.3. 98. 159-160 . 53 Theory of Heat (Maxwell). 163. 11. 100-113. 167. 175. 129. 47. 260261 wireless. 287 Thomson. 11. 47. 262. 125. 299 Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company. 303-305 Tayleur (ship). 13. 135-136. 197 Théorie Analytique de la Chaleur (Fourier). 24. John (brother). J. 98. 70-71. 228. 142 signal transmission delays and failures.6 Thomson. 17. 312. 210 Thermodynamics. 132. 195. 118. 203-211. 173 meteor theory of energy. 27. 95. 79. John (ancestor). 257-258. William.. 142. 189. 278. 239 Telegraph. 195. 265. 30. 86 Thomson. 267. 316 Thomson. Archibald Campbell. 169 Temperature scales.. 134. 76. 175-176. 143. 287 Thomson. See also Submarine telegraph cable. 25. 158 Sun age of. 314 Swan. 305 Thomson. 63. 177-189. 12. 25. 15. 141. 24 Thomson. 165-166. 174. 72. 41. 77. 180 Superstrings. 1920. 139. 78. 16. Mrs. 96. 14. 22-23. 174. 69. 6. 169 Thermometers. 217. 29. 121. 119-120. 193. 125-127. 243-244. 205 Tait. 28. 301 Thackeray. 12. 56. 102-103. 79. 43-45. 22-23. 191 quality control system. 142-143. 78. 46. 88. 302 condensation theory. 227 n. 281282. 54. 132133. 265. 157. 98-100 Tesla. 263. 257. 20 Théories des Functions Analytiques (Lagrange). 125-127. 78 Kiel harbor (Germany). 164. 72. 262 Thomson. Elizabeth.362 Index Telegraphy theory. 303-304 Tait. 287. 45 n. 273-274. 58-60. Joseph. 156. 181. Anna. 41. 314. 243 letter printing machines. 317 Thomson. 289. 48-49. 4. 215-216. 132. 75. 195. 50-52. 31. 155. 51. 145. 154. 269 Temperature gradients. 191-193. 210. 123-124. 171-173. 317-318 Thermoelectricity. 155. Nikola. 32-33. 253 T Tait. 215-216. 118. 293. 94. 119. 45. 167 energy output. 18. 227. 94. 221. Peter Guthrie. 116 laying operations. 94. 79. 22-29. 28. 29. 183. 302 lifespan. 98 Thompson. 283. 189.

4. 270. 248. 55. 310 honors and awards. 61. 210-211. 299. 262. 132-134. 69-70. 306. 177-189 contributions and discoveries. 69-70. 155. 25. 294-295 as entrepreneur and consultant. 142144. 62. 264. 75. 262-263. 20. 221. 311-312. 180-181. 258. 58. 244-252. 222. 298. 269. 306. 93. 60-63. 222-223. 56. 269. 250251. 274-275. 298. 274. 299-301 and electrical measurement. 189-190. 291 ether models. 154. 313. 266. 303-305 in Germany. 274-275. 43-45. 58. 295. 6. 112-113. William (medical professor). funeral. 272-273. 91-94. 52-53. 164. 24-25 and atomic theories. 261. 14-15. . 290-294. 9. 195 fellowship at St. 186. 154. 52-53. 266. 21. 92-94. William. 279. 208-211 and environmental issues. 284. 146. 312. 94. 220. 43. 197-198. 269 and electromagnetic theory. 174. 300-301 conservation-of-energy controversy. 277. 1-2. 303. 312 friends and colleagues. 48-49. 260-261. 4-5. 20-24. 37. Lord Kelvin absolute temperature scale. 2. 309. 312 empirical knowledge and research style. 29-31. 40. 8. 165 and electric power generation and transmission. 316 as Cambridge undergraduate. 80-81. 220. 195. 311 ancestry. 177-178. Robert. 312-313 entropy controversy. 22-24. 157. 312-313 father’s influence. 71. 123 Thomson. 264. 4-5. 275-277. 286. 44. 276. 281. 26. 264. 264. 290. 45 n. 77-79. 46. 70. 260. 227. 154. 76-77. 30. 5052. 265-266. 50. 287. 164-165. 125. 290-291. 219. 4447. 289. 262-263. 211. 21. 78. 34-53. 313 death. 221. 260. 289. 57. 242. 19-20. 285-286.INDEX 363 251-252. 79 and fluid mechanics. 7. 300 and evolution theory. 60. 47. 166 Glasgow Natural History chair. 239 family life and relationships. 262. 176. 269. 164. 278. 104. John (son of medical professor). 311. 6. 153-154. 50-52. 14-15. 43-45. 211214. 264. 153. 163. 308. 298 Thomson. 105. 267. 289-290. 13. 25-28. 142. 32. 25. 172-174. 220 celebrity status. 106. 2-5. 8. 146-153. 284. 194. 267. 65-66. 27 Thomson. 94. 6061. 264. 295-296. 72-73. Margaret. 301. 61-62. 13. 123 Thomson. 40. 163. 38. 59-60. 58. 177. 46-47. 93 Thomson. 123. 287 Thomson. 310-311 dissertation. 301. 296. 277. 155. 22-24. 285-286. 26. 170-171. 306-307. 112. 215-216. 76-77.6. 37. 287-288. 57. 133-134. 11-14. 167-169. 48. 199-203. 272-273. 6. 58-59. Thomas. 219. 297-298 health problems. 292. 100-101. 90. 112-113. 295-297. 143 age-of-earth controversy. 113. 155. 282-284. 14. 11. 94. 244-245. 262. 2. 311. and burial. 266-267. 186. Peter’s. 48. 79. 86-88. 41. 289. 300. 2-3. 272-273. 78-79. 90. 264. 309. 289. 163. 313-314 Baltimore lectures. 285286.

264. 15. 177-189. 265. 173. 112. 157. 223. 224-225. 181. 190-191. 204. 218-220. 235. 210. 298. 194 social life and romance. 42-43. 167. 256-257. 210. 194. 167. 47. 258. 256-259 Netherhall house and laboratory. 139-142. 287. 194195. 125-127. 227. 38-40. 105. 56-57. 219. 298. 312-313 travels and holidays. 219. 14. 120-121. 288-289. 223 and thermodynamics. 292. 41. 310 in United States. 19-21. 133-134. 228-229. 221. 260-261. 193. 61-63. 42. 240. 299. 56. 80. 312 Paris studies. 225-226 and steam-power research. 161. 2. 262. 189-190. 155. 217-218 reputation. 69-70. 48-51 Tidal Harmonic Analyser. 43. 193-194. 100102. 309-310 as physicist. 76. 17. 66. 130. 221. 16-20. 269. 41. 188 interests and lifestyle. 229 Traité de Mécanique (Poisson). 154. 21. 240. 203208. 244. 274-276. 80 patents and patent litigation. 65-66. 166. 70-71. 297-298 ship design criteria. 312-313 peerage. 86-87. 91. 306. 154. 288. 259. 9. 244-245. 15. 253-254. 311 and transatlantic telegraph. 86-87. 162-163. 264. 311-312 retirement. 299 Lalla Rookh and sailing adventures. 155. 5. 53. See also Submarine telegraph cable British government investigation of 1858 failure. 75. 284 and Kodak. 300. 155. Mr. 297 navigation contributions. 94-95. 222. 98. 6970. 107-108. 261. 28-30. 218-219. 298301 wrangler competition. 32. 105. 75. 95. 11. 295. 56-57. 124. 204. 80. 192-194. 155. 213-214. 309. 52-53. 37. 104. 222-223. 123. 5-6. 183. 196-197. 36-37. 228-229 Torpedos. 95. 94-98. 224. 8. 3. 230. 261 personal characteristics. 170-171. 215. 261. 3. 41. 223-224. 21. 13. 226. 70. 253 Tower. 172. 299 . 310 as mathematical prodigy. 15. 220-221. 123-124. 298-301. 216. 1-2. 90. 220. 113. 264-265. 7. 8-9. 91-94. 243. 208-211. 98 telegraphy law of squares. 163. 51. 242-252. 312 as natural philosopher. 65-66. 195. 167. 157. 125. 156-157 influential people and publications. 43-44. 266. 175. 211. 131-137. 2. 79. 227-228. 226-227. 43-45. 37. 168169. 112. 264. 261. 235-236. 241-242. 7. 1-2. 51. 259. 46. 36. 215. 289-290. 195196. 16-17. 106. 57. 283-284 marine consulting. 8. 242 lectures and teaching style. 244-252. 58. 89-90. 158. 100-113. 7. 53 Traité de Physique Expérimentale et Mathématique (Biot). 122-125. 7273. 5. 195. 239-240. 256-257. 100. 8. 220-221. 26. 53 Traité de Mécanique Celeste (Laplace). 313 political views. 223-225. 13-14. 226 and kinetic theory. 243. 125. 155. 191-193. 160. 5-6. 37. 254 married life. 34-36. 242. 156. 216. 34-36. 129. 167. 53. 123-124. 79. 267. 34-35. 256257. 203-208.. 306-308. 76. 204. 77. 309 religious beliefs and practices. 54 Transatlantic telegraph. 7. 3. 31-32. 162-163. 154. 203-208.364 Index published works. 55-58. 264. 3.

218. 159-160. 285. 47. 130-131. 220. 131. 95 William Joule & Son. 129. 173. 146. George. 208. 302 U Uniformitarianism. 159-161 public reaction to. 291. Wilhelm. 8. 297. William. 224 Water mills and water power. 133. 267. 266. 293. 135. 7.S. 155. 161. 202. 135-136. 157 paying-out system. 162. 135 Treatise on Comets (Zöllner). F. 139. 248 Wilhelm Meister (Goethe). 3. 285. 90-91 Wheatstone. 55 White. 41. 149 Wedderburn. 40. 301 Westminster confession. 138-139. 203-208 Trinity College. 162 United States to Newfoundland. 151. 300 Uranus (planet). 314 W Wales. 274.. 216-217 Treatise on Natural Philosophy (Thomson and Tait). 216217. 131-132. 224 capitalization and cost. 132-133. 135. 163 Vector calculus. age of. 151 Vortex atoms.. 156. 294 University of Edinburgh. 191 laying operations. 162. 264. 233. 279 Trollope. 137-138. 135. 161-162 Queen Victoria-Buchanan messages. 197 Truesdell. 137-138. 141 recovery of broken cables. 207. 156. 303 Union Carbide. Émile. Alessandro Giuseppe. 245-251 Weald. 42. 161-162 Newfoundland to Norway. Charles. 193. 157. 132-134. 120. 284. 288 Victoria Institute. F. 13. 116. 2. 141 receiver. 133. 55 U. 67 Wave theory of light. Niagara. 158. 229 Whewell. 187 Victoria. 136. 168. 235 V Varley. 118. 136-137. 174. 159-160 navigation problems. 144. 299. Mrs. 235 Newfoundland to Ireland. C. 73 n. 287 . 65. 314 Vortex sponge. 169. 197 Westinghouse. 3. 33.. 136-138. 120 France to Newfoundland. 15. 132. 285 Verdet. 146. 1. William. 179 University of Rochester. 170. 172. 271-272. 158. 134135. 88-89. 178-189. William. James. 145. 148. 130.S. 68 Universe. 273 University of Marburg. 134. 139-142. 230 Walker. 134. heat death. 139. 190 Wiggler model. 134. 298. 261. T. 223 permanently manned stations. 157 problems and failures. 134. 129 early entrepreneurs. Queen. 147. 204. Clifford. 283-284 Volta. Anthony. 318 Tyndall. 128-129. 156. 196. 161. 130-131. 130. Edward Orange Wildman. 174 Weber. 291 Universal theoretical maximum.1 Wilson. 125-127. 38. 188. 159. 153.INDEX 365 cabling ships. 2. 229 Whitehouse. John. 145. 109 University College (Wales). 130-131.

317 Index Y Young.6 X X Rays. Norton. 260 Wise. M. J.366 Wilson.5. 216-217 . 94 n. 295-296 Z Zöllner. F.. Woodrow. Thomas. C. 297 n. 54. 263.

brimful of fun and mischief.” William Thomson remembered here by a fellow Cambridge undergraduate. (Pencil portrait of William Thomson at 16 by Elizabeth Thomson. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. curly hair and a beauty that was almost girlish. a high intellectual forehead. with fair.) . London.Degrees Kelvin Plate 1 “A most engaging boy.

.) . age 35.” (Photograph by David King. 1925. after their first meeting. recalled Thomson’s “splendid buoyancy and radiance. reading a letter from Fleeming Jenkin concerning the Atlantic cable project.Plate 2 Degrees Kelvin “I have had a visit from Professor Apollo. .” William Thomson in 1859. Annie Jenkin. from King. .

. Thomson’s ingenious mathematical analogy between the geometry of electric forces and the flow of heat was the first step in turning Faraday’s acute insights into the modern theory of electromagnetism. 1884.) .” For James Clerk Maxwell (pictured here). . or science-forming ideas.Degrees Kelvin Plate 3 “One of the most valuable of these truly scientific. . (Photograph from Lewis and Garnett.

. which I have never found in any other scientific pursuit. .” William Thomson overseeing the operation of his mirror galvanometer on the Great Eastern during the telegraph voyage of 1866. Gift of Cyrus W. Field. (Electric room on the Great Eastern. metaphysical interest.) .Plate 4 “Telegraphic work . .10.43]. . courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York. 1892 [92. which finally succeeded in laying a cable from Ireland to Newfoundland. Painting by Robert Dudley. possesses a combination of physical and .

1911. from Knott.Degrees Kelvin Plate 5 “We never agreed to differ. But it was almost as great a pleasure to fight with Tait as to agree with him.) .” Peter Guthrie Tait. (1870 photograph. always fought it out. remembered in an obituary notice by Kelvin.

. . . (Watercolor by Jemima Blackburn. Hugh Blackburn. Courtesy of Robert Fairley. Hermann von Helmholtz.) .Plate 6 Degrees Kelvin “A friendly and unconstrained party. and an unknown child and man discussing the physics of bird flight at Blackburn’s house on the Moidart Peninsula. James Thomson.” William Thomson (left). September 1871.

in 1899.Degrees Kelvin Plate 7 “Lord Kelvin is a gentleman of exceedingly pleasant manners [and] amiability of disposition . 1897. as he sometimes did. photographed here at his last lecture. . .) “What I liked best was when he left us to follow or not as we could. .) . August 21. (Cartoon from Toronto Globe. . 1910. . . (Photograph from Thompson.” A reporter’s impression from Kelvin’s visit to the British Association meeting in Toronto. a remarkable example of a great man whose native character has remained unchanged despite . His mind was full of fancies. . the elevation to a lofty social position. and went on thinking aloud.” A student recollects Kelvin as a teacher. brimming over with metaphors. 1897.

Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Press.” Lord Rayleigh (left) remembering Lord Kelvin. and I remember his admitting that a certain amount of opposition was good for him. 1968.Plate 8 Degrees Kelvin “Our discussions did not always end in agreement.) . Essex. (Photograph from Strutt. In 1900 they were photographed in Rayleigh’s laboratory at Terling.

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